At what point does the personal become political?

Specifically, at what point does negotiating wages and benefits become an act of political speech, rather than a boring old exercise in labor relations? That’s the question before the Supreme Court in a case called Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association.

The plaintiffs do not want to pay the substantial “agency fees” that the union charges them for collective bargaining of their employment contracts, and they’re arguing that they shouldn’t have to, because effectively, the requirement that they do so is coercing political speech.

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Is it “political speech” to negotiate with a school board? That’s what the Supreme Court will have to decide. It’s not an easy call.

When you’re negotiating with governments, there’s never a bright line where politics ends and negotiation begins. That’s why unions, and other folks who sell goods and services to governments, spend so much money on lobbying.

Large public-sector unions, like for police and sanitation workers, wield even more influence: Every time they sit down for negotiations, they bring the threat that their large and politically active membership will vote the bosses out of office if the talks go poorly. Public-sector workers are often legally forbidden the classic tools of labor organization, such as the walkout or the “work to rule” slowdown. But this Election Day cudgel is much bigger.

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Often, of course, public workers’ unions augment this with political contributions and aggressive lobbying efforts, on topics that may go well beyond wages and benefits, and into political causes that help them build coalitions with other left-wing groups.

This broad political activity is part of why public-sector unions are doing so much better than their private-sector counterparts. But it also means that “closed shop” labor arrangements effectively force people into a package deal: Want to be a teacher or a cop? Then you have to join a union and make political statements that you may not agree with.

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that union members could not be forced to contribute to the explicitly political activity of the union. In 1988, this ruling was expanded with Communications Workers of America v. Beck, so that all people working in union shops, public or private, have the right to opt out of paying for union political expenditures. However, it is constitutional for unions to collect an agency fee, a sort of service charge for the activities that are specifically related to collective bargaining work.

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The teachers in Friedrichs are arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay even this, because it effectively forces them into collective political speech. Even if that speech is anodyne — “My pay and benefits should be higher” — they can’t be forced to make it, any more than I can be forced to write “The DMV is awesome and should have more funding” as a condition of registering my car.

Who should win? Let’s skip right past the part where people who like unions say “the union should win” and people who don’t say “the union shouldn’t win.” Because yes, I see you, libertarian in the back, and I know what you think, so you can stop waving your hand.

I’m talking to folks who are generally pro-union, pro- welfare-state, pro-more-government-intervention-on-the-side-of- labor. There’s a compelling argument that even if you generally support union-enhancing legislation, in the case of government workers, you might want to think twice.

It goes back to the conundrum that I discussed at the beginning: Any collective bargaining process with the government is inherently political.

Liberals seem to understand this when they complain about the egregious way that police unions protect their members from public scrutiny. But they have failed to note the obvious broader implications: All public-sector unions will end up operating the same way. And that will be especially true of the aspects of the job that are harder for the public to monitor.

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Very high wages and benefits show up pretty immediately as bloating public budgets, which forces some circumspection upon politicians. A larger problem is the more subtle stuff that unions win — like the unfunded pension promises that are now threatening to break an increasing number of state and local government budgets, the “rubber rooms” for incompetent teachers, and the aforementioned special rules for police officers under suspicion of something.

Of course, this problem doesn’t entirely go away if you get rid of the public-employee unions; as long as the government is large, public-sector employees will constitute a large and important voting bloc. But unions concentrate and enhance this power, and enshrine it in unbreakable contractual commitments. The more powerful the public-sector unions are, the more the institutions they serve will come to focus on providing good jobs and perks for union members, at the expense of providing the services for which those agencies were theoretically created.

That’s why it’s eminently possible to be broadly in favor of expanding union power, and against expanding that power in the government sphere. FDR believed that collective bargaining with the government was impossible; so did George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO in the 1950s. Government has no profits to distribute or share with workers; union power can only take more money from taxpayers, or degrade the quality and number of services offered to the constituents.

The argument in favor of public-sector unions often ends up being: “Well, this is what we have, the last redoubt of the labor movement. We can’t afford to lose it.” If that’s what’s left of the labor movement, why strain so hard to protect it? When I look at the history of labor under the Obama administration, I don’t see a lot of evidence that strong public-sector unions have helped workers in general. Private- sector unions suffered loss after loss, on issues from trade to Obamacare’s Cadillac tax.

So while I don’t know whether the teachers’ union will win this case, I do know that labor advocates should think hard about whether they should win. Stronger public-sector unions are probably good for most of the people in them. But they’re not so great for the rest of us. And the bigger they get, the more their personal issues become our politics.