On Monday, February 26, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, a case designed to strike a dagger in the heart of the labor movement and cripple the power of workers to improve their lives.
Representing the culmination of a decades-long crusade by the Koch brothers and their fellow billionaire anti-worker allies, Janus seeks to make all public sector workplaces — no matter what state they’re in — “right to work for less.” In other words, it would let all state, county and municipal employees “free ride” by receiving all the benefits of union representation without paying a penny for them. That would deprive unions of the resources needed to adequately fight for members’ rights.
This case should deeply concern all OPCMIA members, even though we are not directly affected by it. Why?
First and foremost, because unions are founded on the principle of solidarity and an injury to one is an injury to all. We stand up for our public sector sisters and brothers, and they stand up for us.
Second, because our members in “right to work” states know first-hand how workers are harmed by these laws. In “right to work” states, average annual wages are $6,109 less and workplace death rates are 49 percent higher than in free bargaining states. So if the Supreme Court spreads “right to work” to the entire public sector, that will mean lower pay and more on-the-job deaths. What a combination!
Third, because it tilts the playing field 90 degrees toward management by forcing unions to spend money serving people who pay nothing for the higher pay, good benefits and workplace protections they receive. Unions even have to file grievances for free riders who feel they’ve been wronged.
As Bill Fletcher, Jr., executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said:
Imagine a city that made taxation voluntary, yet guaranteed everybody free public education, police, fire and sewer. Just imagine that. There’s no institution in the United States that would accept such a thing, yet that’s in fact what is being asked of unions.
Fourth and most important, we should care about the Janus case because it is the centerpiece of a lavishly-funded campaign by extremist billionaires to destroy all unions, including ours. A web of anti-worker organizations, including the Bradley Foundation (with $880 million in assets), Freedom Foundation, Illinois Policy Institute, Liberty Justice Center and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, financed this case and took it all the way to the Supreme Court. But they won’t even be satisfied with a ruling that cripples public sector workers — some of these organizations are also busy sending letters to union members urging them to become free riders.
Why are they taking these extraordinary steps? As The New York Times wrote:
[T]he true goal of this litigation strategy has never been to protect workers’ speech rights; it is, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor rightly said, “to do away with unions,” which not only make life a little harder for the world’s plutocrats, but have also become a potent organizing tool in Democratic politics.
In fact, a recent study found that after “right to work” laws are passed, the pro-worker share of the presidential vote shrinks by 3.5 percent, voter turnout is reduced by 2 to 3 percent, and pro-worker forces control 5 to 11 percent fewer state legislative seats.
The bottom line is that this effort is designed to rig both our economic and political systems so billionaires and big business always win and workers always lose.
Finally, it adds insult to injury that this case will decided by a stolen Supreme Court seat. You may remember, that when Justice Antonin Scalia died, President Obama nominated a highly-qualified centrist judge who had been praised by Republicans, Merrick Garland. In a devious scheme hatched by Sen. Mitch McConnell, his nomination was the first in history not be considered by the Senate. Not even a hearing was held. The seat is now held by Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who once ruled that it was OK for a company to fire a worker because he chose to survive rather than freeze to death in his broken-down rig.
Brothers and sisters, if the Supreme Court rules as we expect it to in Janus, it will be a further blow by the forces of greed against working people. But we will not take it lying down. Just as we do in states that have passed “right to work” laws, we up our game, organize tenaciously, fight harder than ever, and take no prisoners. If it’s a battle these billionaires want, we’re ready to give them one they never bargained for.
Daniel E. Stepano