In principle, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has an excellent argument for the so-called "fair share" law that went into effect in Maryland this week. It negotiates contracts for tens of thousands of state employees, whether they are members of the union or not. Conducting those negotiations costs money, and it isn't right that nonmembers get the benefits without paying their share of the costs.
But the potential side effects of the law are cause for concern.
For one thing, employees who belong to other unions that aren't recognized by the state as having bargaining rights would have to pay their union dues plus a service fee. That will almost certainly endanger the existence of these smaller unions.
And for another, the service fees would be a huge financial boon to AFSCME. The fees - which still must be negotiated with the state - will cover more than just the cost of bargaining over a contract. Nonmembers may end up paying as much as members, or nearly so, to fund outreach, educating the public about the work state employees do and other activities they may not wish to support. (Political activities of the union are funded by voluntary contributions to a political action committee, not dues.)
For a state with a strong organized labor tradition, Maryland is coming late to this idea. Twenty-three other states, including all of the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, the West Coast and even some reliably conservative states such as Alaska, already have versions of this law on the books. Former Gov. Parris Glendening first proposed service fees in Maryland a decade ago, and Gov. Martin O'Malley - who, like Mr. Glendening, was heavily supported by the union at election time - finally pushed enabling legislation through this year.
About 26,000 Maryland state employees are covered by the contracts AFSCME negotiates, but fewer than half of them are dues-paying members of the union. AFSCME charges dues of about $30 a month for its members, and union officials anticipate that service fees would not be significantly less. That means potentially millions of dollars a year for its coffers, a windfall that would solidify its position as the dominant employee union in the state.
AFSCME officials display little sympathy for smaller unions who say they'll be drummed out of existence by this change. Patrick Moran, AFSCME's director in the state, notes that it became the exclusive bargaining representative of most union-eligible state employees by winning a series of elections, soundly defeating other unions. "This is about democracy and who won the election," he says. "We won the election."
True, but those elections took place in 1996, and there's no guarantee that there will ever be another. Even sham democracies hold new elections from time to time. To challenge AFSCME's position, another union would have to collect signatures from thousands of state employees and have them certified by the state Labor Relations Board. No group has ever tried.
Yet, the continued existence of these other, smaller unions is testament to the fact that some thousands of state workers believe in organized labor but do not feel that AFSCME meets all their needs. If the union is able to collect fees so high that it makes membership in another union prohibitive, AFSCME would have little incentive to heed the concerns of groups of employees whose interests may not always be aligned with those of the rest of its members.
AFSCME can begin negotiations with the state to impose service fees as early as the end of the year, when its current contract expires. State officials should consider carefully how high to set those fees. It is right to compensate the union for the cost of negotiations, but we should be wary about entrenching it as permanent monopoly. Lawmakers should also consider setting periodic elections for the unions that are vested with bargaining rights. Given AFSCME's belief in the power of democracy, it surely wouldn't object.