Overcoming the Free Rider Problem

Published July 17th, 2014 -  - 07.17.141


Harris v. Quinn raises the question of whether unions will be able to collect dues from workers who are under no obligation to pay them.  Because unions have to provide representation even to workers who decline to pay dues, Harris presents a classic free rider problem for unions.  Is this an insurmountable problem?  I’ve argued that it needn’t be, and today there is some preliminary evidence that it is not.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, AFSCME has been engaged in an internal organizing effort to convert agency fee payers to full-fledged (no pun intended) members.  That is, the union is trying to increase the number of workers who voluntarily pay full union membership dues.  The union’s goal for July 1 was to convert 50,000 workers to full membership.  Not only has the union reached that goal, it has added 92,000 union-represented workers to the membership rolls this year.  And, most important in light of Harris v. Quinn, 21,000 of these new members are home care workers.

This should not, of course, be taken as evidence that the free rider problem that Harris creates (and that a reversal of Abood would create more broadly) is irrelevant or easily over-comable.  It is neither of those things.  But the AFSCME numbers are good evidence that unions may be able to adjust to the loss of agency fee, and that Harris v. Quinn may not be a fatal blow.

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