Agency Fees and the First Amendment
32 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2017 Last revised: 9 Feb 2018
Date Written: September 22, 2017
Agency fees are mandatory payments that certain employees are required to make to labor unions. In recent years, the Supreme Court has moved closer to declaring these fees an unconstitutional form of compelled speech and association and may soon invalidate them entirely. The Court – and the scholarship on agency fees – proceeds from the assumption that such fees are employees’ money that employees’ pay to a union. This article argues, however, that this is the wrong way to understand agency fees and for two sets of reasons. One, the Court treats agency fees as employees’ money because fees pass through employee paychecks on the way from employers to unions. But this is simply an accounting formalism required by labor law. Because employees have no choice but to pay the fees, the fact that the fees pass through paychecks is irrelevant for purposes of First Amendment analysis. Instead, under the First Amendment, agency fees are – and must be treated as – payments made directly by employers to unions. And payments made by employers to unions raise no compelled speech or association problems for employees. Two, irrespective of the accounting regime, the article shows why agency fees ought to be treated as union property rather than as the property of individual employees. Unionization, by allowing employees to negotiate collectively, produces a premium for employees covered by union contracts. Agency fees are a small fraction of this union premium. Because it is the union that produces the premium out of which agency fees are paid, and because individual employees would never earn the premium as individuals, the premium and the fees that come out of it should be treated – under the Court’s own cases – as the property of the union that secured them. The article thus provides two sets of arguments with the same fundamental implication: agency fees are not properly understood as payments made by employees to unions, and there is accordingly no compelled speech or association problem with agency fees.
Keywords: First Amendment, Compelled Speech, Compelled Association, Agency Fees, Union, Labor Law
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