ORONO — The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case with sweeping implications for public employees as it seeks to answer the question of whether or not requiring a worker to pay union dues violates his First Amendment rights by compelling him to support speech he disagrees with, i.e., the union’s political activities. The decision may prove to be historic because of its universal scope and because most union workers are now anchored in the public sector.

Twenty-eight states now have right-to-work laws, the result of a movement that is a descendant of the 1920s American Plan campaign to convince the public that unions were “un-American” and to promote the “open shop,” where union membership was not required and was sometimes forbidden. In the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s, right-to-work crusades were launched and defeated in Maine, but right-to-work advocates in the 1990s ensured that organized labor would receive no respite from its ideological opponents.

In 2003, during the administration of Democratic Maine Gov. John Baldacci, advocates of public unionism for state employees were able to secure contributions from all new hires to help cover bargaining costs. Two years later, a new contract required all state employees to pay union dues, whether or not they chose to join. That rekindled the flame of right-to-work supporters, and the Maine State Employees Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees braced themselves for a new round of ideological resistance as the National Right-To-Work Legal Defense Foundation filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland in 2005 on behalf of state employees who refused to pay their “fair share.”

The court ruled that the MSEA protected all state workers’ constitutional rights when it incorporated service fees into its collective bargaining agreement. While it became illegal in 2007 to fire a public employee for refusing to pay a service fee, the state itself could collect the fee, a gesture that advocates of individual choice called an “involuntary garnishment of wages.”

A right-to-work measure failed that year, and in 2011, despite the emergence once again of the right-to-work movement in Maine, with the blessings of Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Anti-union security measures again fell short of victory in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Against a background of five right-to-work bills in 2017, the state’s largest public unions approved contracts that eliminated the “fair share” requirement. The union members accepted pay raises in return. The public-sector unions continue to exist and workers remain free to join and make voluntary contributions to them.

Meanwhile, whether government workers who choose not to join a union can be required to pay dues is the focus of Janus v. AFSCME, which made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. Teachers in California claimed that such mandatory fees violated the First Amendment rights of workers who disagreed with the union’s political views. The outcome could affect about 5 million workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

Critics of so-called “compulsory unionism” ask: “Who should decide which individual should join any organization? It is our individual freedom to choose for ourselves.” This species of argument has a universal ring of truth. Individual choice, as generally viewed, is the essence of freedom. Right-to-work advocates also declare that they don’t oppose labor unions, only “compulsory” union membership, a seemingly perfect marriage of individual freedom and collective action. For unions, however, this translates into acceptance of unions – as long as they are powerless “paper tigers.”

For organized labor, the right-to-work language of individual freedom serves as veiled ideological opposition to the collective voice of workers, a deceptive misnomer and a loaded slogan aimed at killing labor unions. Right-to-work measures are “right-to-wreck” measures, union-busting tactics, as well as a sanctuary for workers who evade personal responsibility for benefits gained through the collective efforts of others. Politically, organized labor views right-to-work measures as a legal means of neutralizing its power by paralyzing its economic (purse) and political (Democratic Party) muscle.

Right-to-work ideology is generally endorsed by those who view the labor movement as a challenge to employers’ sovereignty over the workplace and find it expeditious to argue that organized labor is the dialectical opposite of individual freedom, an incubator of radical ideas and hostile to a favorable business climate, economic progress and survival in a global economy.

A fragile labor movement, battered by winds of changes in technology and markets, a new employer offensive against organized labor, sweeping demographic changes and graphic inequalities in income and wealth, nervously braces for the high court’s decision. It remains to be seen how organized labor and workers will react if the legal winds prove unfavorable.

— Special to the Press Herald