Greising: The Janus Ruling Doesn't Have to Be a Death Knell for Public Unions

The Supreme Court case that Gov. Bruce Rauner championed delivers a blow to the labor movement, but it also may motivate unions to stop being lazy and get creative.

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, June 27, 2018 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This column by BGA President David Greising was published with the Chicago Tribune.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in ruling in favor of Mark Janus’ free speech rights to withhold a $45 monthly payment to the union at his Illinois government workplace, struck a blow for free labor markets.

In doing so, it also advanced the cause of free riders.

"Free riders" is an economists’ term for a particular kind of market failure. In economic terms, free riders take advantage of a public good but refuse to contribute to it.

People who game the property tax system and don’t pay their fair share are free riders. So are people who picnic in a public park but don’t clean up after themselves, knowing city workers will do so. The economists have a dramatic term for such behavior: “the tragedy of the commons.”

Economists see “free rider” as a neutral description of rational, self-interested market behavior, but it’s usually taken as an insult. No one wants to be called a free rider. That’s because the rest of the people — those who contribute money, time or effort to the public good — tend to resent the ones who refuse to pitch in.

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