Yesterday’s New York Times reports on an extraordinary feature of the restaurant industry. Briefly, food service workers in four states (Texas, California, Illinois and Florida) are required to take a food safety training class every several years for which they are charged about $15. The company that provides the mandatory training to nearly all workers is called ServSafe, and it is owned by the National Restaurant Association. According to the Times, the fees that ServSafe charges for the mandatory training are used to fund the Restaurant Association’s political lobbying efforts, including the Association’s efforts to block minimum wage increases for restaurant workers. As the Times put it, “[m]ore than 3.6 million workers have taken this training, providing about $25 million in revenue to the restaurant industry’s lobbying arm since 2010.”
What do workers think about this arrangement? Most are kept in the dark about it, but those who are aware are unsurprisingly not happy. Again, from the Times story:
“I’m sitting up here working hard, paying this money so that I can work this job, so I can provide for my family,” said Mysheka Ronquillo, 40, a line cook who works at a Carl’s Jr. hamburger restaurant and at a private school cafeteria in Westchester, Calif. “And I’m giving y’all money so y’all can go against me?”
So states are requiring workers to pay a fee to an organization that then uses the fees to fund political operations which many of the workers oppose. Sound familiar? It should. That’s because the Supreme Court has held that states may not require workers to pay fees to a union because to do so is to compel the workers to fund speech with which they may disagree. Indeed, the impermissibility of using mandatory fees for political expenditures has been established for decades. As the Court made clear in Abood (and reaffirmed in Janus), it views such compelled subsidization of political speech as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But the food worker training system outlined in the Times has many of the same constitutional defects that the Court ascribes to mandatory union fees. (Whether ServSafe constitutes an effective monopoly in any of the four states, including whether workers have adequate notice that they can choose an alternative training provider, are important questions but are unlikely to change the underlying analysis.) Put differently, if mandatory union fees are unconstitutional so too are these mandatory food safety training fees, as long as the fees are used to fund political expenditures.
We await the National Right to Work Committee’s lawsuit against the National Restaurant Association.