Union fees: where the U.S. bishops and the Becket Fund disagree

Betty Shadrick, of Albany, N.Y., center, with the United University Professions union, rallies in support of unions outside of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 in Washington. The court is considering a challenge to an Illinois law that allows unions representing government employees to collect fees from workers who choose not to join. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Betty Shadrick, of Albany, N.Y., center, with the United University Professions union, rallies in support of unions outside of the Supreme Court on Feb. 26 in Washington. The court is considering a challenge to an Illinois law that allows unions representing government employees to collect fees from workers who choose not to join. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom usually are on the same side of legal issues. Both have argued in favor of school vouchers and against abortion and same-sex marriage. In Janus v. AFSCME, however, a labor law case that will be argued at the Supreme Court on Feb. 28, the bishops and the Becket Fund support opposite sides in a dispute regarding mandatory fees for union representation. The bishops submitted an amicus brief in support of the fee requirements, while the Becket Fund filed in favor of employees who have religious objections to mandatory fees.

The U.S.C.C.B. position emphasizes the Catholic Church’s longstanding support for workers and their right to organize for fair pay and safe working conditions. The bishops are defending an Illinois law that permits government employees to join together in bargaining units and, by majority vote, designate a union to collectively represent them in contract negotiations and employment disputes.


The law does not require employees to join the union that won the election to represent them, but everyone in the bargaining unit may be required to pay union dues (for members) or what are known as “fair share” or “agency fees” (for non-members). Fair share fees are less than union dues because they are calculated to cover only the cost of employee representation and may not be used to support other union activities, such as political lobbying or social events.

The law contains an exemption clause that permits religious objectors to avoid paying the agency fee by having an equivalent amount paid to a nonreligious charitable organization. The Catholic bishops consider this accommodation sufficient to protect religious freedom and necessary to protect “the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively” and “serve the orderly functioning of the workplace and the common good of workers.” In the bishops’ view, the alternative, which would permit religious objectors to become “free riders” and achieve a financial windfall by avoiding the cost of their representation, is based on a “concept of freedom...too absolute and extreme.”

U.S. bishops are defending an Illinois law that permits government employees to join together in bargaining units to collectively represent them in contract negotiations and employment disputes.

In contrast, the Becket Fund calls fair share agency fee requirements “coercion laundering” because “ultimately it is the government that is forcing a private citizen who doesn’t ascribe to a particular point of view to pay money to promote that point of view.” This argument discounts the charitable contribution alternative to agency fees. Granted, it took Bryan Trygg, a trailblazing religious objector to the Illinois Iaw, six years to have his rights recognized, but he ultimately was successful in having his salary withholdings paid to the charity of his choice and guaranteeing a contractual mechanism for other religious objectors to assert their opt-out rights.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to settle the legal differences voiced in the amicus briefs of the U.S.C.C.B. and the Becket Fund, however, because the case in all likelihood will be decided on free speech rather than religious freedom grounds. The free speech argument is based on the principle that the First Amendment prohibits compelled political speech and on the assertion that public sector union activities, even those limited to core employment objectives such as better wages and working conditions, are inherently political.

For example, a government employee who is not a religious objector but who favors low taxes and minimal government spending may be forced to pay an agency fee that funds union speech designed to secure contract benefits that may result in higher taxes and increased government spending. This form of coerced speech, according to Mr. Janus and his supporters, violates the First Amendment.

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of public-sector fair share agency fees, but the court nearly overruled that decision when, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (2016), a 4-to-4 split vote left the Abood ruling in place.

The states are split on the issue of requiring fair share fees; 22 states and the District of Columbia currently permit mandatory agency fees and 28 states plus Guam have right-to-work laws that do not require such payments (although Missouri’s recently passed right-to-work law is subject to a veto referendum ballot initiative).

It is likely that Abood will be overruled now that Justice Neil M. Gorsuch is on the bench, and the federal government has switched positions from supporting to rejecting the constitutionality of fair share public-sector agency fees. Nevertheless, the end of agency fees, should it come, will not be the end of labor unions. Many employees understand the importance of a common voice and the benefit of strength in numbers. Unions in right-to-work states are returning to their grassroots origins by increasing community outreach and involvement and devising strategies to reduce the cost of representing nonpaying employees.

Regardless of the outcome of the Janus case, the prospects of U.S. workers have been radically altered by technology and by corporate decisions to utilize growing numbers of “independent contractors” and consultants rather than employees entitled to contractual and statutory benefits. Pro-union labor laws were enacted in response to untenable working conditions, frequent and often violent strikes, and disruptions in crucial supply chains. The resulting employment equilibrium benefited the entire nation, but that equilibrium is over.

Workers now earn less (in terms of buying power), and income disparity is growing. Agency fee laws may become a thing of the past, but Americans may eventually demand new laws to ensure that a day’s work provides at least a day’s food, a day’s housing, a day’s transportation, a day’s health care and a day’s education.

Joan Sheridan
2 weeks 4 days ago

I am proud to stand with the Bishops who seem to understand Church teaching as they should.

Nora Bolcon
2 weeks 4 days ago

Wow it is nice to be able to agree with our bishops on something finally. We need more unions and stronger ones.

Mike McDermott
2 weeks 4 days ago

I disagree with USCCB in this case. Unions in the US are using much of their dues money for political lobbying of a completely partisan nature. I think these bishops, and a great many Catholics, are enamored of the private sector unions who fought for the oppressed worker in the last century. Today most union workers are in the well paid public sector and dues are used to lobby government on issues contrary to Catholic teaching.

Kevin Murphy
2 weeks 4 days ago

You mean support the NYC Teachers Union which owns every Democratic politician in the state and fights tooth and nail to suppress all charter schools? Sorry, but I'd love to see it whittled down to size. Public Sector Unions have decimated municipal governments across the country and I hope they are Reiner in.

Andrew Strada
2 weeks 3 days ago

Interesting that the bishops are so committed to fair wages for public school teachers, among others. Very few Catholic school teachers are unionized. Public schools pay their teachers much more than Catholic schools do, especially grade schools. Are the bishops prepared to support unions in Catholic schools? Or is this another case of focusing on the mote in their brothers' eyes while ignoring the beam in theirs?

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Unions are a form of organization that gets little scrutiny on their secondary and tertiary effects.

Do they increase wages for their members? Yes.

Do they decrease the numbers of jobs for workers? Yes.

Do they increase overall economic well being? Doubtful anymore. At one time there was serious hazards in manufacturing and mining but they have been mostly legislated out of existence.

Are industrial unions competitive? Yes there are two sides and each could be affected negatively or positively by negotiations. Increases in cost can theoretically be included in increased prices but then consumers have a choice not to buy.

Are public unions competitive? No. Two sides negotiate who have no downward incentive for restraint while a much larger third side pays for both sides. The third side has not alternative to go to unlike in industrial situations. Now if politicians had to pay somehow for the money the public unions received then one might see a completely different outcome.

The same applies to unions in universities where the students/parents end up paying.

But unions are sacred to Catholic social theory from the 19th century that reflect a workplace that no longer exists. So we often get an encyclical that's 150 years old to justify them. But more importantly they are essential to left economic policies which is the real reason one will see favorable treatment in America the magazine.

Just remember every time a union gets higher wages, someone else is losing. They like to imply it is the business but it is usually the poor or the average person.

Vince Killoran
2 weeks 1 day ago

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I'm sorry but the evidence is not on your side. There is no evidence that a unionized workforce decreases jobs (it actually bolsters local economies since working people have more money to spend); it improves workplace safety in a period with serious health hazards; and they contribute to economic democracy and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Rosenfeld's WHAT UNIONS NO LONGER DO (Harvard U. Press, 2014) on the effects of falling union membership on working people's wages, especially people of color.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks ago

Right, right, right. Maybe there should be a debate on what you claim is wrong and just what the evidence and logic is. For example, basic economics says that if you raise the price of something you get less demand for it. It is called the law of supply and demand.

The higher the price of something the less demanded. The higher the price of labor the less it will be demanded. This means less jobs.

The wealth of a society is the total amount of goods and services produced. If some have more money in which to claim these goods and services, it means others have less. Conventional thinking has it that the employer will be the one to have less. The attitude is that "they can afford it."

But in reality what happens is that prices are raised or alternative methods of production are used and the consequences are less for others or even less jobs in the industry where union wages were raised. It is invariably the poor that get screwed. How does Catholic social theory on unions square with less jobs for the poor?

Maybe Ms. Boegel will want to defend unions based on economic analysis especially government unions. She brought up the topic.

It is hard to repeal the law of gravity. It is equally hard to repeal human nature/natural law which is the basis for the law of supply and demand.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 week 2 days ago

There is a newer player in the field whom the unions cannot negotiate with: AUTOMATION.
The ballyhooed "Fight for $15" promptly cost thousands of current and future entry wage jobs in the fast food industry when Mc Donald's and Wendys rolled out self service kiosks to replace jobs at order and pay counters. Amazon buys Whole Foods and promptly initiates buy on line /pick up and eliminates check out cashiers. Education classes are now "live streamed" and one teacher now does the job which formerly required many teachers. The "law of supply and demand" has a new player. So if you want a demonstration of unions costing jobs look no further than Mc Donald's and Wendy's to see the it. More importantly these cases sketch out the future of wage demands which cannot be readily passed on to and accepted by the final customer.
It is reasonable to expect where labor costs are critical to low profit margin /price sensitive products that automation will severely limit current and future employment.

Joshua DeCuir
1 week 2 days ago

It seems to me that one can hold the belief that unions are an essential mediating institution in civil society & are net positive for workers, while simultaneously believing that the predominant use of union dues & fees to fund overtly political, & highly partisan, ends are problematic. The concern can be heightened when one is talking about public sector unions funding campaigns for people who ultimately employ them, which is why FDR (among others) disfavored them. Reading the transcript of oral argument, it seems as though this is what trouble Justice Kennedy most.

Chuck Kotlarz
5 days 15 hours ago

"Tax Cut bonuses to more than 2,000,000 workers." Trump tweet: 8:50 AM - Jan 14, 2018

Trump's tax cut will increase national debt $1.5 trillion for two million bonuses for a cost of $750,000 per bonus.

U.S. bishops’ support of fair pay perhaps has more merit than Trump’s tax cut.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 days 9 hours ago

Where were you when 10 Trillion of additional debt was added during the Obama years .......when were there no bonuses, and average wages declined.
There is an alternative ....it's called " less government spending "

Chuck Kotlarz
4 days 6 hours ago

Ten trillion in debt, as a share of GDP, aligns with the level of debt that pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a prominent student of the Great Depression, contends that the 2008 financial crisis was worse than its 1930s counterpart.

Real median household income grew six percent under Obama.

The church and the poor have been around long enough for the church to witness the benefit of a fair wage.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 days 21 hours ago

Artful dodge on your part ...
Your original statement was that "the bonuses paid after the recent tax law changed cost the US taxpayer $750,000 per bonus" ...
That statement is facile, cute but a totally dishonest use of the numbers.

PS. please note Mr Bernanke's statement was made in a lawsuit where he was trying to defend the Government seizure of AIG's post recovery profits after full repayment to the Fed through its control of Preferred Shares

Chuck Kotlarz
3 days 20 hours ago

Your comment on "bonuses paid" lacks supporting data which suggests none exists. One perhaps should conclude U.S. Bishops’ vision of fair wages superior to the merit of Trump’s tax cut.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 days 12 hours ago

Ehhhhhh....Chuck , you were the one who quoted "2,000,000 received bonuses " in order create a facile jab that those bonuses cost taxpayers $1.5 billion or $750,000 per recipient . ....but now you claim there is "no evidence" for this?......for your own quote?...then why did you use it?

Chuck Kotlarz
2 days 4 hours ago

Stuart, your comment implied the $750,000 figure incorrect and did not state what the "correct" number would be. One perhaps should conclude the $750,000 figure is correct and the U.S. Bishops’ vision of fair pay is also correct.

J Cosgrove
1 day 23 hours ago

Mr Kotlarz

All this is nonsense and you should know it by now. The main purpose of the tax decrease was to provide business with new investment funds which would provide for productivity increases which would increase the wealth of the country. Everyone would share in that in various ways. Either through higher wages as workers become more valuable or with cheaper products.

All this discussion of dividing the tax benefits by the number receiving bonuses is a "straw man" argument or red herring. Similarly providing a fair wage is also a nonsense argument that sounds good but ignores the natural law which God gave us. Wages are based on the need of the one paying the wages and cannot be mandated without causing disruptions in the system by frustrating normal human behavior.

You can not wish happiness on people. It has to be worked for to be lasting. To do otherwise ends up hurting the poor. Just about everything you want is dysfunctional and will hurt the poorest amongst us
The bishops have to sound pious or else they are criticized. They rarely have good solutions to social or economic problems. But they must pronounce or else they are accused of not caring.

If you care about the poor, learn basic economics as a starter and find out how the wealth of a society is increased. The last place to look to do this is a government except to enforce basic laws of safety, contracts and property. The individuals who run a government are every bit as selfish as those not in government except they do not have to pay attention to the natural law for survival. They have no interest in others and only heed their superiors who are mainly interested in power.

Given that it is St. Patrick's day, here is a bit of Irish wisdom

The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 day 23 hours ago

It is not necessary to present "evidence" or an alternative to your facially dishonest computation. One is not compelled to jump on your trampoline of number games to observe that your number construct is dishonest.

Chuck Kotlarz
19 hours 51 min ago

Stuart, your comment intentionally lacks specific numbers. Specific numbers are immaterial to the aristocracy. Aristocracy breeds disorientation and dysfunction. A dysfunctional congress, for example, is a weak congress. A weak congress is an easy to buy congress.

Similarly, specifics of the bishop’s fair pay are immaterial to the aristocracy. Several comments above intend to create the appearance of a weak church and a church unable to lead.

Numerous comments on America, the magazine, make it clear that the specifics of history or other facts are immaterial to the aristocracy. The aristocracy aims to disorient the electorate. A disoriented electorate is a dysfunctional electorate.

J Cosgrove
17 hours 48 min ago

The aristocracy aims to disorient the electorate. A disoriented electorate is a dysfunctional electorate.

Sounds like those who are in and vote for the Democratic Party.(Press, Academia, Hollywood, most of a Wall Street, Silicon Valley etc.) You must love what Trump is trying to do. The aristocracy or elites are definitely out to get Trump and his agenda to serve the common person.

Here's a suggestion for you. Read or listen to Thomas Sowell’s 1999 book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice. In it he points out nearly all the errors people make trying to correct injustices. It should be required reading for everyone who writes an article here at America. Reading Sowell would get rid of a lot of the nonsense published here and get people thinking about constructive ways to solve society's problems.

Stuart Meisenzahl
16 hours 3 min ago

This is about the 10th time you have trotted out this "aristocracy" term as a deflection without ever identifying whom you think these aristocrats are.
If you mean "Wall Streeters " "big law firms" , the "titans of Silicon Valley" and similar types then I suggest you go look at various published compendiums of who these groups publicly supported with money and personal endorsements......The Democratic nominees . I think every analysis of voter groups in the last presidential election shows that Trump supporters lived in the heartland of the US where no Aristocrat with any self regard would live. Worse yet those analyses all indicate that a very large percentage of the working class voters who previously supported Obama voted in this last election for Trump. So fess up .....who do you define as an Aristocrat and why have you sought argumentative refuge in this personal Meme? Your Delphic statement that this undefined Aristocracy ."...breeds disorientation and dysfunction" is incomprehensible. But I will grant you that the phrase, despite its lack of any apparent meaning, has a foreboding sound.


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