“The right wing has weaponized the word ‘freedom’ so that people think the only way they have freedom is to do something alone, that the solidarity and unity of doing something together, which is how working people really have power, is not ‘freedom’. But what we’re seeing is that people get that they need to work together in order to accomplish what is impossible alone.” Randi Weingarten – president American Federation of Teachers.
The US Supreme Court ruled on June 27th on the Janus vs. AFSCME case that an Illinois law requiring workers, in a unionized workplace, to pay their ‘fair share’ of union dues, was a violation of ‘free speech’ and so was unconstitutional. Essentially this makes all public sector jurisdictions in the US governed by “right to work” legislation.
It is a blatantly unfair ruling. Unions now have a legal obligation to represent all workers who are covered by a collective agreement whether or not they pay dues. So non-members receive the same wages and benefits. They have the same protections around unjust discipline. They have access to all the provisions of the collective agreement as a union member has. Before the ruling, in about 22 different States, including California, New York and Illinois, there were legal provisions that if you benefited from union representation you had to pay your fair share.
In Canada this was instituted by Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand in 1946 and is known as the Rand Formula. It was upheld and strengthened by the 1991 Lavigne decision. The US Supreme Court in 1977 had come to a similar decision in Abood vs. Detroit Board of education though the US ruling was more restrictive as to what that dues money could be used to pay for. It said unions could not use this money for political purposes unrelated to collective bargaining or for organizing other workers.
Justice Alito, who spoke for the majority, said that the “deductions were coerced political speech” because the act of collective bargaining for things like wages, working conditions and protections, is in itself, a political act. Therefore people, like Janus, who do not want a wage increase or protection from unjust dismissal for example, are having their free speech rights violated. This is how asinine the argument is.
As Bill Fletcher Jr. states “In any other institution the matter would be simple. If, for instance, you live in a town or city and you are required to pay taxes, you do so in order to cover the collective costs of that jurisdiction. Individuals cannot declare one day that as a result of differences with a government body that they should be able to avoid taxes. Yes, people have tried that route and there is not a good ending to that story.”
This ruling is merely the latest step of the grand conservative agenda begun back in the early 80’s by Reagan and Thatcher. Part of that agenda was to weaken, if not eliminate, trade unions. While unions have survived, they have mainly been fighting rear guard actions, merely trying to hold on to the status quo. This right wing agenda works by convincing people they are isolated, and powerless. This decision is part of that process. As Joe Burns writes in the Jacobian, “In the Janus framework unions are not representatives of the entire working group but only a collection of individuals”
The Koch brothers and other right wing billionaire activists have funded dozens of “right to work” campaigns in the US and even in Canada. They also funded the Janus campaign which is a super-sized right to work version of the state campaigns. They want non-union workplaces. For the most part they have succeeded. US private sector unionization is now about 7% of the workforce.
However, in the public sector, which is the target of the Janus ruling, almost 35% belong to a union. The conservatives hope that this decision will lead to a similar decline in public sector unionization rates. They believe if these public sector unions are unable, because of lack of a consistent funding base, to provide the usual services, more members will opt out of paying dues. It becomes part of a vicious circle. Wisconsin is an example of a highly unionized state that brought in a whole slew of anti-union legislation including “right to work” legislation and saw a drop of 5% in members and a corresponding loss of income, benefits and protections. Since a majority of public sector workers are women, and people of colour form a sizable minority in government jobs, the adverse effects are even more far reaching.
So is this Supreme Court ruling the death knell of the labour movement in the US? Most union leaders, while acknowledging the negative fallout this ruling will have, say they have been preparing for this decision for the past four years. Besides reducing their budgets they are stepping up more direct contacts with their members and are also putting social and economic justice issues to the forefront of their campaigns. They also point to a wave of teachers’ strikes in many “right to work” states such as West Virginia that were successful because of public support.
I would like to believe that this dreadful decision will galvanize the American labour movement. Union leaders will recognize that the service model of unionism is a non- starter in such a hostile political climate. The organizing or social model of unionism where members have a more direct say on their work life, and where the union contract doesn’t end at the plant gate or office door, will become the model for all unions.
One thing an event like Miners Memorial does is to remind us of the enormous obstacles our ancestors had to overcome. The little labour legislation that was on the books was definitely not friendly to working folk. Most of the media was biased against workers. The courts were made up of well off lawyers and judges who consistently sided with the company men. Yet they prevailed. It wasn’t easy and they made some serious missteps along the way, like supporting racist policies. However, by the 1960’s, workers share of the nation’s wealth was more equitable than at any time in history. The seeds of social change for women and for people of colour had been sown.
The implications of the Janus ruling, along with all the other negative trends in our society such as increasing racism and xenophobia, rollbacks on women’s rights, and greater marginalization of the poor, could lead to a real fascist state, not merely a rhetorical one. We need to rekindle that flame of resistance from our ancestors and envision a world where there are no ‘free riders’. Maybe then we will win a measure of justice.