On June 29, 2018 – the final day of the 2017-2018 term – the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that deals a major blow to unions and may ultimately impair workers’ rights across the country. The decision came the same day that Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Court.
In Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, the Court ruled in a 5-4 vote of majority conservative justices that government employee unions cannot require members to pay fees or dues to the union. The decision means that unions can no force their members to pay dues even though unions use the fees to negotiate benefits for those very same members.
The decision affects a massive number of some of our country’s most important workers: police and firefighters, teachers, public health workers, municipal employees and many, many others. In fact, union members in the public sector represent more than a third of all public employees in the country.
Even if you’re not a government union worker, you should still care about this case.
Unions have played a major role in the labor rights movement in the United States since the early 1900’s. Trade unions (or labor unions, as they are sometimes called) are associations of workers who come together to achieve common goals in the work they perform for their employers. In 1867 Karl Marx observed the importance of trade unions, noting that the importance of trade unions for the working class “can scarcely be overestimated.” He wrote: “The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labour-power from falling below its value.” (Capital V1, 1867, p. 1069).
Labor unions are responsible for most of the benefits that employees today have come to expect in every fair working relationship. You can thank unions for giving us:
- Paid vacation
- Paid sick leave
- Child labor laws
- Social Security
- Minimum wage
- The 8 hour work day
- Overtime pay
- Workplace health and safety (OSHA)
- Discrimination laws
- Wrongful termination laws
- Holiday pay
- Military leave
- Workers comp
All of these things that we now take for granted were advanced by labor unions. If it weren’t for them, you’d still be toiling away at work like they did in the early 1900’s – for 12-14 hours per day, 6 days a week, in dangerous jobs with high rates of fatalities, all for meager wages (and even lower pay for women and children).
There’s no doubt that the Janus decision weakens unions, as it could cost labor unions tens of millions of dollars. But it doesn’t just hit unions in the pocketbook; it also cuts away at their clout in the political arena, too.
Supporters of the decision contend that it really won’t lead to bankrupting unions, and even “If insolvency does become a real concern, public employee unions could divert some of the approximately $166 million they donated to political campaigns in the 2016 election cycle.” And there’s the real truth: opponents acknowledging that unions should cut funding for the very political campaigns that favor middle class workers.
For that reason, Janis is being criticized as an attempt by the rich to further rig the economic playing field against workers. Others have called it a political attack on the middle class of America. Still others point out that wealthy special interest groups like the Koch brothers have funded efforts like this one to disempower the American worker and keep wages low so the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and “the economic ladder of opportunity that built this nation gets burnt to the ground.”
Although the Janus decision isn’t a major surprise to those keeping an eye on labor rights (the ruling achieves the goal of conservatives’ efforts in so-called “right to work” legislation that has been put forth in states across the country), it comes at a time when labor activism is growing in America. In recent months we’ve seen massive protests and strikes by unionized teachers that have led to pay raises for teachers in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Despite Janus, labor activism is alive and well.
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