My friend and long-time organizer and author Kim Fellner took a deep dive into the state of the labor movement, focusing a lot on recent attacks and what the consequences will be for millions of working people and for progressives generally. Unions are a major funder of community organizing and electoral campaigns in this country, and today’s SCOTUS ruling destroys labor’s resource base, while supposedly guaranteeing continued benefits to non members in public sector unions. Below Kim explains why today’s SCOTUS ruling matters.
SCOTUS Guts Union Resources with Janus Decision
by Kim Fellner
This weekend I’ll be joining with my progressive friends and colleagues across the country to protest the inhuman and inexcusable assaults on immigrants perpetrated by this shocking Presidency.
But, in the coming weeks, I do wonder who will be protesting with me to defend the rights of working people—those of us who live off our earnings rather than our investments—to form unions and confront our employers for dignity and economic fairness?
Despite the harm that destroying unions causes for tens of millions of people, many progressives have little sense of what unions do, or why their survival matters. But if you have any doubts, you need only look at who’s been gunning for them.
The assault on unions marries the interests of right-wing ideologues with the interests of financial and corporate empires. For the Right and for libertarians, the attack aligns with their obsession with deregulation, free markets and a passion to shrink government and disempower government workers. Meanwhile, the financial establishment gets the license to pursue its bottom lines and shareholder profits without having to consider even the modest voice and power that self-sustaining union infrastructure have helped workers attain in the workplace.
The Janus Ruling
The SCOTUS ruling against the labor movement in Janus vs. AFSCME, is the icing on the cake for this disturbing alliance. It promises to de-institionalize the progressive movement and rob us of the resources and power to oppose them, not just on the job but in the realms of policy and politics.
The attack includes a court strategy to remove the ability of public employee unions to collect “agency fees” from individuals who are covered by a union contract but choose not join the union. This mirrors the relentless march of right-to-work initiatives already in effect in 28 states, which generally allow employees in a unionized job to receive all the benefits of a union without paying dues or fees to cover any of the costs of representation. Imagine that masses of people who voted for Hillary Clinton decided not to pay taxes to the federal government because they don’t like President Trump, while still getting their mail delivered and collecting Social Security cost-of-living increases. That’s the essence of these laws, which make union fees voluntary rather than the obligatory and ultimately decimate union treasuries and power.
In 2016, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was widely seen as the likely vehicle to overturn the precedent set by the Supreme Court in Abood v Detroit Board of Education (1977), which allowed unions to collect “fair share” fees in lieu of dues. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia created a 4-4 draw on the Court, which allowed the Abood precedent to stand. However, with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, the high court finally delivered the blow with Janus v AFSCME. As attorney and author Moshe Z. Marvit reported in In These Times, “The Janus case is almost identical to the Friedrichs case in that both are premised on the idea that there is no line in the public sector between political and non-political activity… If everything that a public sector union does is political, then it is a much shorter line to find that a worker should not have to pay any part of the costs of collective bargaining.”
The anti-union ruling in Janus will demolish union memberships and empty union treasuries; already, unions are preparing for reductions of 30 percent and more. The millions in union funding for civic engagement and politics will drastically shrink, as will the organized constituency for progressive policy and venues for civic education and participation. “Our organization will mostly become a volunteer organization,” says SEIU Executive Vice President Valarie Long. “One of the reasons the attack is going on is that it cuts off the income stream to the progressive movement. We’ll still have a place in the movement, but it’s not as an underwriter anymore. We’re not going to have the resources to do that on a practical level.”
Why Unions Matter
Labor unions (along with Planned Parenthood) are at the top of the Right’s obliteration list for an obvious reason: Unions are the predominant progressive-leaning, secular institution marshaling money and infrastructure to advance a progressive economic agenda that benefits working people rather than the economic aristocracy.
Unique in the progressive sector, unions are both a major funder of political activity and an actor engaging working people on a massive scale; this is especially true in public employment, where one third of the workforce is unionized, and where those unions have become a major political force and funder—hence the obsession with attacking public employees, as is the case with Janus.
It’s customary to read about the massive reduction of union density from a post-World War II high of nearly 35 percent to our current low of barely 11 percent. But that obscures the sizeable footprint unions still have on our landscape—not just at the workplace, but across civil society—and it’s not just about money!
- A higher percentage of union members are registered to vote than their non-union neighbors, and they also turn out to vote at a higher rate.
- Unions provide one of the very few secular spaces to bridge the divides of race, income and education to pursue shared aspirations for a better life. And they provide members a chance to practice democratic participation and acquire leadership skills that can be translated to the larger civic arena. “The workplace is a civic commons of sorts… and yet we don’t treat it that way,” observes Bill Fletcher, a labor organizer and educator. Harry Boyte, an internationally known scholar of civic participation, concurs, “The workplace is a civic site. It’s not simply distributive, like the rights which are negotiated in contracts. The spaces in which we work can be spaces for empowerment, for developing civic muscle, fostering confidence and skill building.”
- African Americans, immigrants and women are among those most likely to seek union membership and benefit from it. The latest Department of Labor statistics show that two-thirds (65.4 percent) of workers age 18 to 64 who are covered by a union contract are women and/or people of color. Almost half of all union members are women and more than a third are people of color. “The labor movement, especially public sector unions, have been so significant for black workers,” says scholar/activist Dorian Warren. “Unions have been a core institution that created the black middle class. Any attacks on labor should also be seen as racial and gender attacks on women and people of color.”
- Unions shift the balance of power, providing a challenge and a counterweight to the corporate agenda. Not only do unions elevate voice and dignity in the workplace, they are the backbone of political leverage for policies that redistribute income. As sociologist Theda Skocpol bluntly puts it, “Without labor, the Democratic Party walks away from the redistribution of wealth.”
The lack of understanding of the relationship between bargaining power and progressive change exemplifies a general uncertainty among potential allies about the centrality of labor to the progressive movement. “Progressives know that Planned Parenthood is not just about their political heft, it’s about clinics everywhere that affect the quality of people’s lives and access,” observes AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer. “And the existence of the institution also changes the way in which choice is discussed in the public arena, and it provides a focal point for positive action. However, while labor infrastructure is larger by a substantial magnitude, it’s not seen or valued in the same way.”
Even at this low ebb, there are still 14.6 million union members; internal union estimates put the revenue of unions at $15 billion a year, including $9 billion from member dues. “Labor still plays a very important role,” says Guy Molyneux of Hart Research, “and if anybody doubts it, I would just reflect on how much of a priority it is for Republicans everywhere to destroy what’s left of it.”
We need unions, even with their limitations, and Americans, especially progressives, need to defend them. Without racial justice, we cannot have a progressive society. Without a powerful, collective voice for working people we cannot have a progressive economy. And without environmental sustainability, none of it will ultimately matter.
It sounds like a simple formula, but it’s far from easy to achieve. The progressive libertarian donors in Silicon Valley aren’t fans of an independent, unionized voice for working people, and some unionists are not committed to placing racial justice and environmental sustainability at the core of their practice. But if we want to share a progressive movement based on economic, racial and environmental justice, those are the agreements we need to reach. It’s not about silos in funding or political practice. It’s about what we owe to each other, how we complement and magnify each other’s work, and what does not get bargained away.
Ed note: This story has been edited since publication.