On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME; a ruling is expected in a few months. The case is the culmination of a concerted right-wing attack on the unions of teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses and other public sector workers.
If successful, it will lower working family incomes across the country, in union and non-union households, in public sector and private sector alike.
The question is fundamental. No worker can be forced to belong to a union. Public sector unions, however, are required to negotiate and represent all workers in a workplace whether they belong to the union or not.
Current law allows unions to collect “fair share fees” for the basic costs the union incurs for representing non-union members who benefit not only from the higher wages and benefits that the union negotiates but also from the representation — sometimes costly — the union provides in personal grievance proceedings and other contract disputes with the employer.
In the Janus case, Mark Janus, a social worker in Illinois who is not a member of the union, claims that paying fees for services he benefits from is somehow a violation of his right to free speech. The chances are good that the five right-wing activist judges on the Supreme Court may well overturn more than 40 years of precedents to support this bizarre argument.
The Janus case doesn’t arise from widespread popular opposition to unions. It is part of a concerted, multi-faceted assault on worker organization financed by zealous right-wing foundations like the Koch Institute, the Bradley Foundation, the Uihlein Foundation, the Walton Foundation and more. It is a central reason why the Republican Senate outrageously refused even to bring President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination to a vote, essentially stealing a Supreme Court seat for the right.
Reactionary employers — like Walmart and the Walton family — bitterly oppose unions for obvious reasons. Unions empower workers to gain a fairer share of the profits and productivity that they help to generate. That reduces the amount of money investors and owners can make off with.
As a study by the Economic Policy Institute shows, when unions were at the height of their membership — representing 33.4 percent of employees in 1945, the top 10 percent of America pocketed a generous 32.6 percent — about a third — of the nation’s income. In 2015, with unions reduced to only 11.1 percent of the work force, the richest 10 percent pocketed 47.8 percent — nearly half — of the national income.
Ironically, principled conservatives ought to support unions, small-d democratic organizations mediating between the individual and the state and providing schools of democracy and citizenship. Today’s right-wing, however, treats them as an archenemy, scorning them for supporting programs for the common good — investment in schools, a higher minimum wage, a secure retirement, affordable health care — rather than benefits to entrenched interests and the rich.
So the right set out to crush unions, through legislation, litigation, disinformation campaigns and more. Taking off with Ronald Reagan, the campaign has been systematic and unrelenting, and increasingly successful. Workers wages have declined and inequality has grown more extreme as a direct result.
With an anti-union ruling in Janus, the right hopes that more and more employees will choose to be free riders, refusing to join the union while enjoying the benefits that the union negotiates for free. Then, as a bill already introduced in Florida demonstrates, they will move to decertify unions whose dues -paying members constitute less than a majority of the workplace.
This is a fundamental human rights issue. Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, where he had gone to stand with sanitation workers seeking to form a union. He understood that the right to organize and bargain collectively was vital not only to workers but to democracy.
With the Janus case, that fundamental right is under assault at a time when we should all be working to strengthen the right to organize, not undermine it.
Now is the time for citizens of conscience to stand with the public employees that serve us — the teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses and others. We will all pay the price if the right’s attack goes unanswered.