About Traditional Government Unions

Organized labor has shaped the culture and mindset of large swaths of workers in the United States. For some, union membership brings with it a familial pride as the union itself offers a common thread not only with colleagues but with parents and grandparents who were also members of a union. For the Northeast, this is especially true. In fact, the first recordings of organized labor in the U.S. were set in Boston in 1648 when shoemakers formed a guild. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911 that showed the country why there might be a need for employees to organize. In 1962, President John. F. Kennedy signed an Executive Order that for the first time gave public-sector workers the right to unionize.

Today, public-sector unions are one of the largest special interest groups in American politics. Public-sector unions owe their massive influence over local, state, and federal government in large part to state laws that for decades forced workers to pay them as a condition of employment, either as mandatory membership or through “agency fees”. These “agency fees” were at the time seen as fair payment from non-union members who benefited from the collective bargaining work that unions provided in negotiating employment contracts.

But as government unions have become flush with funding, the services they provide their members have subsequently become subpar. And, many benefits that unions tout as victories of their work – like pension plans and healthcare benefits – are guaranteed to public sector workers by state laws, completely unrelated to union-negotiated contracts. In many cases, government unions are no longer focused on serving handfuls of workers at a local level but are instead compelled to serve much larger political interests via extreme collective bargaining demands, campaign financing and lobbying.

Thanks to the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, millions of public employees formerly required to pay a government union as a condition of employment can change their membership status. Workers who leave the union remain covered under their existing employment contracts and retain their employment-guaranteed benefits and gain the opportunity to choose how to spend their hard-earned money. For many workers, the traditional union that represents their job might not be the best choice for their personal situation and needs. Whether it comes down to the cost of a traditional union, the way traditional unions spend revenue from union dues on political lobbying, or the feeling of a lack of support, many individuals choose to opt-out, or leave, the union. The important thing is that the decision about union membership is made by the worker

To help workers understand their options and better understand how we got here, we've assembled a brief history of labor law.


Brief History of Labor Law in the US

1935 – National Labor Relations Act / Wagner Act

Partially as a reaction to huge nationwide strikes in 1933 and 1934, Congress and President Roosevelt passed this law, establishing unionization and collective bargaining as the norm for private-sector employees. This law also establishes the National Labor Relations Board, and the practice of exclusive representation, where once authorized within a bargaining unit, a union represents and negotiates for all employees within that bargaining unit, regardless of whether or not all employees are dues-paying members to the union.

Additional Resources:

  • The text of the law can be found here.
  • The National Labor Relations Board has a host of resources and legal explanations here.
  • A good history of how this law came to be can be found here.

1947 – Taft Hartley Act  / Labor Management Relations Act

This act amended the 1935 Wagner Act in a few ways. First, it limited the kinds of strike-related activities unions could undertake; the 1935 Wagner Act prohibited employers from engaging in unfair labor practices, and this law was seen as a way to also prevent unions from engaging in unfair labor practices. Second, it allowed states to pass right-to-work laws. Finally, it gave federal courts jurisdiction to enforce collective bargaining agreements. This law still only applied to private-sector employees.

Additional Resources: 

  • Details on the changes that the Taft-Hartley Act implemented can be found here.
  • A narrative on the impact of this new law can be found here.

1962 – Executive Order 10988

In 1962 President John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, which allowed public-sector workers to unionize for the first time. Public-sector, or government employed, workers were not covered under the 1935 Wagner Act, or 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

Additional Resources:

  • Read the text of the Executive Order here.
  • A narrative on the impact of the Executive Order can be found here

1969 – Executive Order 11491

In 1969 President Richard F. Nixon signed Executive Order 11491 which expanded the ability of public-sector workers to engage in collective bargaining.

Additional Resources:

  • Read the text of the Executive Order here.
  • An excerpt from a book on the impact of this and other Executive Orders related to labor policy can be found here

1977 – Abood Supreme Court decision

Public school teachers in Detroit, Michigan wanted to remove mandatory union membership or equivalent “agency fees”. The union argued that “agency” or “fair share fees” were only fair for non-union members, as these non-union members were benefiting from the union’s negotiations with the employer: the practice of exclusive representation established in 1935 meant that the union was obligated to negotiate for everyone within the bargaining unit. Now, unions wanted compensation for the exclusive representation: either in the form of membership dues, OR in the form of agency fees. The Supreme Court unanimously held that these practices were legal, and that “union shop” employment was legal both in the private sector and the public sector. This decision affirmed the practice of charging “agency fees”.

Additional Resources:

  • Read the full Supreme Court decision here
  • Read an explanation of why this case mattered here.

1988 – Beck Supreme Court decision

Union dues generally cover two types of expenses (1) the cost of collective bargaining with an employer, and (2) everything else. In the 1988 Beck case, the Supreme Court ruled that “agency fees” charged by unions to non-members could only be for the cost of representation during collective bargaining, not for other union costs (like lobbying and political spending)

This case began to limit what “agency fees” unions can charge, if any. Because of this case, union members and fee-payers became able to request a refund for the portion of their dues that was spent on political activities.

Additional Resources:

  • Read the full Supreme Court decision here.
  • An explanation of what "Beck" rights are can be found here.

2018 – Janus Supreme Court decision

In general, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee, emphasizing that mandatory union membership or fees for government unions are a violation of workers’ First Amendment free-speech rights, noting that government unions are “inherently political” because they involved the allocation of tax-payer resources. Thus, mandatory union membership or payments was compelled political speech. The Janus ruling restored the right for public sector employees to choose whether or not they join the union associated with their job. Since the 2018 Janus decision millions of public-sector employees from been freed from having to spend their hard-earned money on union dues or agency fees that do not align with their values.

Additional Resources:

  • Read the full Supreme Court decision here.
  • A visual history of this case can be viewed here.
  • An explanation of Janus rights from the legal team that argued and won the case can be found here.