The reactionary majority of the U.S. Supreme Court assaulted working people in two rulings announced in May and June. The cases, funded by corporations and right-wing foundations, threaten a century of hard-fought gains by the labor movement.
On one hand, the bosses’ court imposed “right-to-work” conditions on public employees, imperiling their unions. On the other hand, they took aim at private sector workers by eliminating the right to sue employers collectively over issues like discrimination and pay disputes.
The takeaway is that it’s time for workers to return to their roots and retake their rights through solidarity and concerted action.
Stacking the deck. In Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the court ruled that public-sector unions can no longer collect fees from non-members to cover the costs of representation and collective bargaining. This reverses a long-standing decision from 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education) that affirmed the right to collect such fair share, or agency shop fees. Public sector unions already cannot require represented workers to be members. With the Janus ruling, they must continue to represent nonmembers, who now become free riders.
Illinois social worker Mark Janus claimed that wages and benefits for public workers are inherently political issues because they affect budgets and taxes. Janus contended that a union engages in political speech when it argues for a contract that raises salaries, and he should not be “compelled” to support such speech under the First Amendment.
By this logic, unionists should argue that public employee strikes are also free speech! Public workers engaged in a wave of strikes in the ’60s and ’70s to unionize and force local and state governments to negotiate with them. Most of these walkouts were illegal.
The other decision involves three combined cases, generally listed under National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil. In this ruling the court majority claimed that arbitration clauses in employment contracts override the right of workers to take collective action. This essentially nullifies provisions of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that allow employees to file class action lawsuits against their bosses to settle workplace disputes.
Based on the ruling, if a woman’s job contract contains an arbitration clause, and the boss sexually harasses her and other employees, the workers must settle their complaints separately via arbitration, with no recourse to the courts. The decision especially affects nonunion workers. The ability to sue collectively was their only realistic way to win job grievances against corporate employers with high-priced legal teams.
All workers affected. The ramifications of these decisions are devastating unless workers fight back. The Janus decision essentially establishes right-to-work for all public employees. More aptly called “right to starve,” these laws prohibit compulsory union membership (union shop) and nonmember payment of fees for union representation. The concept’s origin is in the Jim Crow South, where white supremacists created it to divide and weaken labor.
There are already 28 right-to-work states in the U.S. Now, all public workers are subject to the same conditions that lead to lower salaries and reduced benefits.
The reactionary forces behind right-to-work laws have been trying for decades to expand their reach. Public workers are a prime target because they have the highest rate of unionization, at over 34 percent. They are also key because they have higher percentages of more militant workers of color and women than in the private workforce. With Janus, labor foes have the chance to reduce government union membership rates from 60-70 percent in states like California and New York, to 10-20 percent as in many right-to-work states.
Another goal is to make it easier to privatize public services that the right wing has in its crosshairs.
Although Murphy Oil’s immediate damage falls on nonunion employees, its longterm effects are likely broader. By allowing arbitration clauses to prevent collective class actions, the court moves toward permitting job contracts that prohibit union membership entirely. Justice Ginsburg warned against such “yellow dog” contracts in the minority’s dissenting opinion. Mass labor pressure led to outlawing the yellow dog contract for private sector workers in 1932. It’s time to gear up again, especially with the private representation rate already only 6.5 percent.
The two decisions are intended to destroy the power workers wield through unionization and leave big business’s influence unchecked. Working people must rebel to turn things around.
Labor bosses capitulate. Given the stakes in the two anti-union cases, labor leaders needed to take their members into the streets to fight back. Instead, they merely filed court briefs and pushed the rank-and-file to sign membership commitment cards.
This tepid response stems from a decades-long cozy relationship of labor officials with public and private employers. They traded away the power of workers in striking, for fair share fees and “labor peace.” They replaced labor self-reliance with reliance on Democrat politicians.
Some Democrats talk a good game on labor, but the party’s loyalty to its corporate donors wins out. Democrats helped build the current conservative court by allowing Republicans to stonewall President Obama’s labor friendly court nominee for an entire year. A Democrat majority in Congress also failed to pass the card check bill in 2009. This would have allowed workers to win union representation directly when over half a workforce signed union choice cards.
Real gains come from a strong movement, not Democrat officeholders.
Strength in solidarity. In February, teachers in right-to-work West Virginia pressured leaders of the two major unions to take a strike vote. The result was a statewide 14-day wildcat walkout that won higher salaries and other demands. Teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere were inspired to take similar actions. Such rank-and-file initiative is key to turning things around.
Let’s follow the example of the West Virginia teachers, build labor solidarity and join with the many social justice campaigns to forge an unstoppable movement that puts working people in the driver’s seat.
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