Supreme Court Ponders Labor’s Future
Unions across the country are waiting anxiously for the United States Supreme Court to decide a case which could profoundly affect the future of the labor movement throughout the United States.
The case is Mark Janus versus the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 (Janus vs. AFSCME), and it will determine whether employees receiving the wages, working conditions and benefits negotiated by a union, will have to pay for the cost of those negotiations. The Janus ruling will apply directly to public employees and their unions.
ABOOD VS DETROIT
To fully understand the Janus case, it is important to understand the Supreme Court’s prior case which addressed this question. In 1977 the court heard the case of Louis Abood vs. the Detroit Board of Education. Mr. Abood was a Detroit school teacher who argued that he should not have to pay union dues because that money was used for political purposes with which he disagreed (the endorsement of specific political candidates, for example).
At the time the Supreme Court partially agreed with Abood. In its ruling the court said that members could not be forced to pay to support political positions with which they did not agree. However, the court said, employees are entitled to not be members of a union (and to not pay that portion of their union dues or fees that supported political activities), but that they could be required to pay the documented costs of contract administration and negotiation. The ruling in Abood was that since the union was required to represent all employees within a bargaining unit regardless of their union membership (negotiating wages, working conditions, benefits, etc., as well as handling complaints and grievances), employees could be required to pay that portion of the union dues which covered those activities. You get the benefits, you pay the cost.
To many union members and leaders the decision seemed unfair from the outset. People pay dues to organizations all the time, and don’t get to pick and choose how that money is spent. If you join the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, or the Chamber of Commerce, for example, you cannot stipulate that you only want to pay for certain activities. Your dues go to paying for all the activities of the organization, some of which you may agree with, and some not.
But Abood has been the law of the land since 1977, and everybody has learned to live (often grudgingly) with it. Through arbitration, studies and negotiated agreements the amount of money required to support the contract negotiation and enforcement has been determined, and non-members covered by union negotiated contracts have paid their “agency fees.”
Then along came Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the State of Illinois. His argument is that despite benefiting from union contract negotiation and enforcement, he shouldn’t have to pay anything. When a union negotiates with the government, he contends, all its actions are political, and he can’t be forced to finance them (it is, he says, a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech).
“This is like stealing your neighbor’s cable, only more so,” said Local 38 Business Manager Larry Mazzola, Jr., when asked about the Janus case. “Here is a man who enjoys all of the benefits of collective bargaining and doesn’t want to pay any of the costs.”
Indeed, Donnie Killen, one of Janus’ co-workers (they work in the same building) points out just some of the benefits he enjoys because of union negotiation, including:
In negotiations over its 2016 contract, AFSCME prevented probable privatizing and outsourcing of state employees’ jobs including Janus’ child support division.
Over his years working for the state, Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-negotiated raises.
During contract negotiations AFSCME blocked the state from doubling the cost of employee’s health insurance, and from drastically reducing coverage.
In the building where Mr. Janus and I work, the heating and cooling system is extremely old. So when the weather fluctuates, the union works to get portable heating or cooling units deployed where they’re needed.
Our union has fought to save the defined-pension benefit that Mr. Janus will receive upon retirement. A coalition of unions including AFSCME took the issue to court—and won. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that employees’ pension benefits cannot be cut.
A red herring
Even as Janus argues for his right to freeload, many people believe that his arguments are a red herring. The case, which has cost several hundred thousand dollars to litigate, has been financed by zealous right-wing foundations like the Koch Institute, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, The Center for Individual Rights and the Liberty Justice Center. All four of these groups operate as non-profits and have publicized some of their donors like the Walton Family Foundation (the non-profit established by the Wal-Mart Walton Family) and the Koch Brothers.
The hope is more employees will choose to be free riders, refusing to join the union while enjoying union negotiated wages and benefits. 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, thus eliminating unions all together.
Just as important, the anti-union right hopes to put unions in a position where the cost of representing non-paying free riders is so exorbitant that there is no money left for political action, effectively silencing the voice of unions and working men and women.