For Public Employees, Speech Is Free, But Is Anyone Listening?

Source: Dina Kolker, Employee Relations Law Journal, Vol. 45, No. 1, Summer 2019
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In the current political environment many groups feel that “government” is not listening to their needs and issues, but most would be surprised to discover that the government has no legal obligation to listen to any of us. This legal “secret” is of particular import to the long-run wrestling match between the public sector labor movement and their right-wing opponents, where the so-called “right to work,” presented as a positive, often translates into the right to be ignored, a decided negative.

The “Right to Work” movement often touts its focus on empowering workers through the First Amendment. The name itself is designed to indicate a right to a job and implies some individual control over the terms of that employment. “Give yourself a raise,” and other variations of that sentiment, are declared on mass mailings targeting public employees in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, overturning a four-decades old precedent that had permitted unions to collect fair share fees from nonmembers. The decision is praised by some as a win for worker free speech, but what does it mean for a public employee’s right to be heard? Anyone who has ever repeated the same request multiple times to a distracted child knows that there is a world of difference between speaking and being heard.

Indeed, the admittedly catchy invitation only thinly veils the reality of what was won and what was at risk of being lost in Janus. The mailing does not say call your boss and demand a raise higher than the one your union was able to negotiate for everyone in the last contract. Yet, individual negotiation of terms and conditions of employment is implicit (if not explicit) in the employee-facing rhetoric of Right to Work groups. The implication is that by turning down the volume knob on public sector unions you somehow inherently amplify the voices of individual workers. Nothing could be further from the legal — and practical — truth. The simple fact is that, absent collective bargaining laws, the government, neither as employer nor as sovereign, has any obligation to listen. In fact, government generally has no obligation to listen to any citizen, from the president on down…..