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A free ride or a carjacking?

  • Author: Todd Smoldon
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 4
  • Published July 4

The ink had barely dried on the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Mark Janus in Janus v. AFSCME case before my local teachers' union sent me an email decrying the decision. The correspondence was rife with emotional buzzwords and hyperbole. It was a perfect demonstration of why the ruling was so important and why so many public employees are celebrating it.

Many of my public school teacher colleagues are feeling liberated, not threatened. The Janus ruling has confirmed the right that many of us already knew we had, but never had the power to enjoy: the right to work without being forced to join a union. The Supreme Court's broad ruling in favor of Janus means that we are no longer compelled to join a teachers' union and pay thousands of dollars to promote political and social causes with which we disagree.

Despite union leadership's exaggerated response to the ruling, the court's decision does not eliminate public sector unions or anyone's freedom to join one. It does not harm working families. It also has no impact on private trade unions and how they operate. My union's claim that it is a victory for "corporate interest groups" couldn't be more wrong. It is a victory for those who support First Amendment rights.

Those opposed to Janus argued that public workers must be forced to pay union dues or they would be "free riders." For any unfamiliar with the term, free riding is an economic expression used to describe a person who receives the benefit of an economic transaction without bearing the cost. Lawyers hired to argue for public-sector unions tried to convince the court that employees not forced to pay union dues would still benefit from the higher salaries negotiated in collective bargaining. It is not surprising that a majority of the court found their argument to be specious.

Rather than free riding, forced public sector union membership and dues for many are a carjacking. The last-in, first-out language (the last to be hired is the first to be laid off) significantly protects veteran teachers and makes young, creative, energetic teachers vulnerable to job loss. Additionally, the lucrative benefits package is very important to older teachers with children and dependents, but given the choice, many younger teachers would prefer larger paychecks and fewer benefits.

High-quality teachers are carjacked by the way salaries are determined in my union's negotiated contract. Regardless of how hard one works or how well one teaches, his or her salary will be the same as every other teacher who has been teaching the same number of years and has the same level of education. Teachers who teach or are certified in areas of shortage also make the same as those who can easily be replaced. If anything, it is the union that is free riding on those who are young, highly skilled and teaching in difficult subject areas or settings.

Throughout my tenure as a public school educator, I have become increasingly frustrated with public sector unions using their members' dues to support political agendas unrelated to their jobs or the people they serve. Recent decisions of the National Education Association to support gun control measures and Planned Parenthood are just two of many examples. I also grow more and more frustrated with the local political candidates who the Anchorage Education Association and NEA support with my money, as they are not fiscally conservative and support social welfare programs that trap people in dependency.

Along with many of my public-sector colleagues, I see the right to work and associate as a fundamental constitutional right, and am thrilled with the Janus ruling. There are some benefits to union membership, and people should be allowed to join one if they choose. But no one should be forced to join or give money to an organization with which they fundamentally disagree. I hope the Janus decision will be the catalyst needed to encourage public-sector unions to focus less on politics and more on their members and the citizens their members are paid to serve.

Todd Smoldon has taught high school economics for 20 years, resides in Willow, and has lived in Alaska for 31 years.

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