Daniel DiSalvo, author of Government Against Itself, a critique of the power of public-sector unions, welcomed the decision in a recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that it will “rebalance the playing field in states where the power of unions make it impossible for governments to address the rising costs of pensions and retiree health care, which are crowding out other spending.” It is widely expected that union membership will fall considerably in 22 states that had hitherto subjected dissenting public employees to agency fees. If you have to pay your designated union one way or another, whether in the form of union dues or agency fees, the prospect of going out of your way to explicitly reject membership might seem like a chore, especially if it is a ritual you will have to undertake more than once. The end of agency fees will make opting out far more attractive, which could prompt a rush for the exits.
Organized labor has been bracing for this outcome for some time, and liberal activists are warning that the decision will have grave consequences for their causes, as it is far easier to raise funds from large public-sector unions than from small-dollar individual donors. Public-sector unions have played an essential role in financing the left’s political infrastructure, from think tanks to voter-registration efforts to ballot-measure campaigns. Just as importantly, public-sector unions have mobilized their members to great political effect. Prior to Citizens United, unions were only allowed to visit their own members at home. After it, they were free to visit the homes of voters who did not belong to unions, which paved the way for a significant expansion of voter-contact efforts. Those days aren’t over. But public-sector unions might grow more solicitous of their members, offering more direct services to persuade them of the value of continuing to pay their dues. To appeal to public employees who are politically moderate or conservative, they may well choose to focus their political efforts more narrowly, abandoning their role as angel investors in all manner of left-of-center causes. Or perhaps public-employee unions will grow more militant to energize their smaller memberships. We see a hint of this in this year’s wave of teacher strikes in right-to-work states.
Regardless, the waning of public-sector union power will bring to the surface the political diversity among public-sector employees, and this will create new political opportunities. Expect conservatives to place greater emphasis on increasing the autonomy and authority of public employees, all while moving away from the rigid salary schedules championed by public-sector unions. At the same time, increased flexibility could give rise to entirely new forms of public employment.
To illustrate the first possibility, consider one of the central dilemmas in public education. Parents tend to favor smaller class sizes, despite evidence that class-size reduction isn’t always the most cost-effective way to improve learning outcomes. For one, there is a danger that class-size reduction will lead to a reduction in average teacher quality, as the most effective teachers will teach fewer students and new entrants into the profession won’t always have the skills and experience they need to excel. But to public-sector unions in the pre-Janus dispensation, class-size reduction was always a good thing, as it meant more dues-paying members (or more non-members who had no choice but to pay agency fees). As their power wanes, there is more room for other approaches, such as a “Gold Star Teachers” initiative, an idea first outlined by the policy analysts Frederick Hess and Olivia Meeks: Talented teachers would be permitted to take on more students in exchange for more compensation. As Hess and Meeks explain, “given the choice between a Gold Star Teacher serving more children and another teacher working with fewer, many or most parents will likely prefer the larger class.” Just as importantly, high-quality teachers could decide for themselves whether a higher salary is worth the extra effort it would take to teach larger classes, without undue pressure from union representatives who insist on one-size-fits-all policies.