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Union Busting At the Supreme Court - The War On the Poor Continues


Oh no! An article on unions and the Supreme Court? Really? Why can’t I just join the chorus and talk about Jared Kushner's deeply compromised (and probably criminal) ethical standards? Or the current president’s continued fight with his Attorney General? Well, these topics are already well documented, and today’s post is part of my ongoing theme of calling out the ongoing conservative War On the Poor.

This week, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, in which the plaintiffs urged the Court to end compulsory union dues for public employees. The argument from the conservative side is that such employees should not be forced (as they currently are, by law, in many states) to contribute to unions’ collective bargaining efforts. This is said to violate such individuals’ first amendment rights, by forcing them to contribute to unions’ political activities, which they may oppose.

It is highly likely that the Supreme Court will side with the plaintiffs and rule against public unions. Four conservative justices are already on record as supporting this argument, with Justices Alito and Kennedy having invited such cases for years. The newest Justice, occupying what should heretofore be known as the “McConnell” seat on the Court, is almost certain to take the same position. Thus, a 5-4 ruling against unions is probable by the end of the term.

What’s so bad about this? Why should members be forced to contribute to efforts that they don’t politically support?

For one thing, the anti-union argument is disingenuous. Previous Court cases have established that public employees are not required to support unions’ political advocacy work. If a member does not support a union’s political endorsements, for example, he/she is welcome to withhold money from those efforts. Rather, members are only required to pay their fair share toward collective bargaining, because otherwise they would get a free ride--receiving all the benefits derived from union negotiations without having to pay for them.

Let’s say you’re in a public union and you have the option of paying or not paying a portion of your salary in each paycheck. Maybe you’d decide not to contribute; let those other suckers do it. Well, if just a few people make this choice, the union can probably still go on (perhaps, then, the non-contributor should not get the raises and benefits the union subsequently negotiates--but state law requires unions to negotiate on behalf of all members).

On the other hand, let’s assume that a number of union members make the choice not to contribute. What happens then? There is a good chance that this will divide and conquer the union, as well as hamper and even cripple its efforts to bargain effectively. It is not difficult to imagine that this will have a negative impact on the wages and benefits for union members.

Look, the story on unions is not all positive. 50 years ago, my father took a principled civil rights stand and bucked the United Federation of Teachers, and the union took it out on him and my mother for the rest of their careers. As a member of the CSA (the union for NYC principals and other administrators), I am aware that, regardless of what it states publicly, CSA stands for its members first and students second. So when I take a position in support of unions, I recognize all the potential faults and scars of organized labor.

But I am not the typical union worker. Think about nurses who keep patients alive, utility regulators who keep citizens safe, and administrators who ensure that government services operate and checks keep coming. These folks are not well-off, nor will they ever be. If the Koch brothers and relatives of the current president deserve a secure nest egg for the future, shouldn’t we say the same about these citizens?

Because of unions, workers are better off than they would otherwise be. In states that have a strong union presence, workers make more money, on average, and are protected by benefits such as sick days, insurance, and retirement plans. Moreover, evidence shows that the presence of unions has a positive impact on wages and benefits for unionized and non-unionized workers.

Make no mistake: This is a well-funded effort by corporatists on the right, well-connected with the Republican party and by supporters of the current president. In their marketing campaign, they outline two broad reasons for weakening unions. First, they label these efforts under the title of “right to work”, which promotes a worker’s right not to join a union. This blithely ignores the fact that federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union. Rather than support workers, “right to work” has the result of reducing workers’ power and exacerbating income inequality.

Second, conservatives have grafted a first amendment label to this issue. Supported by their allies on the Supreme Court, they have equated the right to free speech with the “right” of workers not to contribute to collective bargaining. In effect, they say, when workers contribute part of their paycheck to unions who negotiate for them, they are engaging in forced speech. But nothing is preventing these workers from speaking out against the unions, or from engaging in political activity within the unions themselves. When the notion of free speech gets convoluted in this way, it distracts from the reality that conservative funders have found a small minority of employees to raise a false issue on their behalf, as part of their overall strategy to destroy unions, thus threatening the livelihood of millions of their fellow workers.

I began this post with a brief allusion to the current president and his son-in-law. In fact, the topics are not so different. From the compromised ethics of the White House to the conservatives’ anti-poor campaign, the ruling class is now operating based on a “what’s in it for me” philosophy and has neglected the democratic norms of serving on behalf of all of a country’s citizens.

When people talk about making America great again, perhaps they should think of a time when unions provided an effective counterbalance against corporate interests. So while you keep up with the daily bustle of noise and mayhem with regard to the White House (and well you should), don’t forget that while this is happening, the right wing is continuing its long-fought War On the Poor.

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