June 27, 2018 will be marked as a dark day in the chronicles of American labor history. With a 5-4 decision breaking down along the usual ideological grounds, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Janus v AFSCME, a decision that renders the entire public sector ‘right to work.’ Welcome back to the Gilded Age!
Let’s start by looking at what happened the past four decades that led to this point.
In 1977, the Court ruled in Abood v Detroit that non-union members could be charged membership dues to cover costs of “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes.” In workplaces that are unionized, known as closed shops, the unions spend lots of money to finance operations that benefit both members as well as non-members. Abood was a compromise that said the union could deduct dues from anyone working in their closed shops but that the funding could not be used for things like political endorsements.
Thirty years later, Samuel Alito was made a Supreme Court Justice by George W. Bush. Since he took his place on the bench in 2006, various anti-labor formations laid the groundwork of legal precedent and arguments that would allow for Abood to be reversed. And so in February 2018, an Illinois social worker named Mark Janus had his case against his union, the AFSCME, heard in the Supreme Court, saying he no longer wanted to pay his dues.
In an opinion piece written for the Chicago Tribune in 2016, he said “I went into this line of work because I care about kids. But just because I care about kids doesn’t mean I also want to support a government union. Unfortunately, I have no choice. To keep my job at the state, I have to pay monthly fees to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, a public employee union that claims to ‘represent’ me.”
Donnie Killen at Labor Notes wrote a brilliant article, I Work with Mark Janus. Here Is How He Benefits from a Strong Union, that basically refutes all of that nonsense. Nevertheless, Alito wrote in the majority opinion that there are major First Amendment issues at stake and therefore voided Abood. As such, the entire public sector has overnight become a ‘right to work’ realm.
While I’m critical of the AFT leadership, particularly because of how it helped skewed the AFL-CIO presidential endorsement of 2016 towards Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders (a major reason why we are even talking about this case right now), here is a useful video explaining the backstage players behind the Janus decision.
Let’s not mince words. The AFL-CIO ‘s actions over the past seven decades, since the Taft-Hartley Act became law in 1947, allowed and even facilitated this outcome. Whether it was collaborating with the state to oust their best organizers under the auspices of anti-Communism, aiding and abetting the most rancid aspects of American foreign policy, or kowtowing to the Democratic establishment and candidates no matter how abysmal their policies were for workers, the AFL-CIO has done itself no favors.
In 2008, its endorsement of Obama was based on a promise that he would legalize the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would reverse the strictures imposed nationwide by Taft Hartley. And yet, in 2012, when Obama had done no such thing, there was zero effort to hold his feet to the fire. Instead, the AFL-CIO continued to support him even as he devising the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, had it been ratified, would have had devastating consequences for unions.
However, in closing, I’ll note that not all is doom and gloom. One promising development is that during the past two decades the immigrant community has helped revive some of the radical spirit of the Gilded Age labor movement, as seen with the 2006 Great American Boycott. That was held on May 1st in order to create a rebirth of May Day as a workers holiday.
Despite the increasingly difficult political climate, let’s hope that the immigrant community can help create a social movement unionism paradigm, in contrast to the current business unionism paradigm that has greatly enhanced corporate profits and power at the expense of workers that labor is meant to represent.