An important case you may not have heard of is almost at the front door of the Supreme Court. It’s called Janus v AFSCME, and it could deal a deadly blow to public-service unions across America when it’s heard early next year.
Anders Lindall, the Public Affairs Director at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, tells us when a workplace is organized by a union, the union hopes that every worker will join up and carry a union card. But, because of a Supreme Court ruling 40 years ago, individuals can opt out – although they must share some of the cost.
“Now you don’t have to join the union,” Lindall explains, “but because everybody benefits from the contract then everybody shares in the cost of negotiating and enforcing that contract. Obviously, there’s a cost to have the staff, to have the negotiators, to have the attorneys to litigate. All of that has a cost, and so what fair share is, for anybody that objects to the union, to the union’s political activity on behalf of candidates that support working people, you don’t have to pay that portion of dues. You just pay this pro-rated amount that’s called “fair share”. And what these corporate, wealthy rightwing special interests want to do is wipe out fair share so that individuals could choose not to join the union, get all the benefits but pay nothing for it. It’s really a scheme to drain the union’s resources.
Unions represent almost a third of public-sector workers in America today, but only about six percent of private sector workers. And the two are being increasingly pitted against one another. Since public-sector salaries are funded mostly with tax dollars, politicians are attacking unions for what they see as contracts that command high salaries and offer pensions that often don’t match their private-sector counterparts. But Lindall says he thinks public workers have a high degree of support.
“We are talking about firefighters, caregivers, nurses, teachers,” he asserts. “In our case child protection workers, folks who keep our air and water clean, work in our libraries and so much more. People value those services, and people still believe in that basic bargain of America that not only when you work hard you should be able to sustain a family and get ahead, but that we all do better when we all do better. And I think the folks at the very top are trying to turn us against one another”
In a case similar to Janus two years ago, already being heard at the Supreme Court when Justice Scalia died, so-called “swing” justice Anthony Kennedy voted with the conservatives. So with Scalia’s death the Court was deadlocked 4-4. In Janus, Neil Gorsuch has joined the Court and will almost certainly vote against the union. So that has led our Governor, Bruce Rauner, who was instrumental in bringing this case, to claim that there’s a 90% chance this case will go his way.
If Janus v AFSCME is successful, it won’t, in and of itself, kill public sector unions. But it will make it possible for anyone to quit the union and receive all the benefits provided by the dues-payers. The interests who brought the suit are confident that over time the dwindling dues will kill the unions and allow legislatures to cut salaries, pensions and benefits. But Lindall says his union and others are ready for the fight, and he believes large numbers of workers will remain in the union as dues-payers anyway.
“Gallup does an annual survey of American attitudes about the labor movement, and those numbers have been on an upward trajectory ever since the great recession,” he claims. “I think it really shook people up and made them realize how deeply insecure too many working people are in this economy. Folks are slipping down the ladder to the middle class, you know, trying to hang on to what they’ve got, unable to get ahead. In this country that’s just not what we were ever raised to believe. You know you should be able to do better than your folks did and your kids should be able to do better than they did, and that’s why two-thirds of Americans today in this most recent Gallup poll just out a couple of months ago say they think that unions are a good thing. Large percentages say that they would join a union if they could. And really interestingly, the younger someone is the higher their approval of the labor movement is.”
You can listen to the audio-only version of this show on SoundCloud here
You can read a full transcript of the show here: CN transcript Oct 5 2017 Anders Lindall