Case is part of a broader effort to tilt the playing ‘field in favor of billionaires and CEOs
Washington – On Feb. 26, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could profoundly affect the ability of public-sector workers to improve their wages and working conditions. The case threatens the right of the majority of workers to bargain with their public employer, through their democratically elected union.
At issue is whether non-union members, who share in the wages, benefits and protections that have been negotiated into a collectively bargained contract, may be required to pay their fair share for the cost of those negotiations.
The case, which is bankrolled by the National Right to Work Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center — the litigation wing of the Illinois Policy Institute — part of a network funded by billionaires and corporate CEOs, asks the Supreme Court to interpret the First Amendment as a “right-to-work” law for the entire public sector.
The First Amendment has never been interpreted this way, and doing so would conflict with the Supreme Court’s long-established deference to state decisions about their public workforces.
The outcome of the case will affect about 17 million public-sector workers across the country.
Under current law, every union-represented teacher, police officer, caregiver or other public service worker may choose whether or not to join the union — but the union is required by federal law to negotiate on behalf of all workers whether they join or not. Since all the workers benefit from the union’s gains, it’s only fair that everyone chip in toward the cost. That’s why 40 years ago a unanimous Supreme Court approved the cost-sharing arrangement known as “fair-share.” Janus seeks to reverse that.
“When working people have the freedom to speak up together through unions, we make progress together that benefits everyone,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31.
“This case won’t change the simple truth that no one is required to join a union and no one is required to pay any fees that go to political candidates. That’s already the law of the land,” Lynch said. “This case is about eroding the freedom of working people to come together, speak up for each other and improve their lives by negotiating to make the rules about benefits, hours and wages more fair.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
The Janus case started as a political scheme by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who shortly after taking office issued an executive order and filed a lawsuit trying to ban fair-share fees.
In a June 10, 2017 interview with the right-wing Hoover Institution, Rauner dropped the ruse that his ongoing assault on unions is about economic policy, saying it has “nothing to do with any of the budget.”
Instead, he said, it’s about “chang[ing] the culture and the power structure in Illinois.” In other words, tipping the scales of our economy and our democracy even further against working people, while amassing more wealth and power for billionaire CEOs like himself.
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ASSAULT ON WORKING PEOPLE
“The politically-motivated backers behind Janus know this case is nothing more than a smokescreen for what they’re really trying to do,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “For generations, unions have been the best path to the middle class for working people, especially people of color and women.”
Black women in particular could be hurt by Janus, as they are disproportionately represented in public sector jobs, making up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers.
Black women have traditionally faced a double pay gap — a gender pay gap and a racial wage gap. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), black women are paid only 65 cents of the dollar that their white male counterparts are paid. Unions help reduce these pay gaps. Working black women in unions are paid 94.9 percent of what their black male counterparts make, while nonunion black women are paid just 91 percent of their counterparts.
If the Supreme Court decides in favor of weakening unions, it will impact the future of democratic decision making in the workplace and the preservation of good, middle-class jobs in public employment that have traditionally benefited African American women who have chosen to serve the public for their careers.
“The case’s backers are attempting to write the rules further in favor of their own special corporate interests and other billionaires. The justices on the Supreme Court cannot allow themselves to be fooled,” García added.
A BROADER EFFORT
“This case is part of a broader effort to weaken the freedom and power of working people, undermine public services, and to erode the common good,” said Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.
A comprehensive report issued last year by the EPI detailed how collective bargaining plays an essential role in the labor market, by raising working people’s wages and supporting a fair and prosperous economy as well as a vibrant democracy.
Unions and their ability to bargain collectively are an important force in reducing inequality and ensuring that low- and middle-wage workers receive a fair return on their work. “The Supreme Court should consider the benefits of robust collective bargaining and unionization for public employers, employees and the general public, including improved government services, better educational outcomes and higher economic mobility,” Lieberwitz said.
“The court also should not ignore the fact that many of the groups who filed briefs in support of Janus only want to manipulate and weaponize the court’s decision to attack unions and deprive state and local governments of broad societal benefits that accompany collective bargaining.”
U.S. Bishops: No to Janus, no to ‘right-to-work’
On January 19, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in on Janus v. AFSCME with a powerful amicus (“friend of the court”) brief defending the right of workers to organize and opposing Janus and “right-to-work.”
The brief reads, in part:
“The Catholic bishops of the United States have long and consistently supported the right of workers to organize for purposes of collective bargaining. Because this right is substantially weakened by so-called “right-to-work” laws, many bishops — in their dioceses, through their state conferences, and through their national conference — have opposed or cast doubt on such laws, and no U.S. Bishop has expressed support for them.
“[Janus] invites this Court to constitutionalize the “right-to-work” position — instantly, without exception, for all 50 states, almost irreversibly — in the public sector. [Janus]’s proposed rationale for this dramatic move appears designed to lay the foundation for a still more dramatic one: constitutionalizing, in a subsequent case, the “right-to-work” rule in the private sector as well.
“The Court should decline this invitation. It should leave constitutional space for the public policy position supported for so long by so many bishops and bishop-led institutions, rather than declare still another such position outside the bounds of what policymakers are permitted to implement by law.”
As a sign of how seriously the Bishops are taking this matter, the brief compares Janus to Roe v. Wade – another Supreme Court decision that declared Church teaching unconstitutional.
Congratulations to the Bishops for their courageous stand on behalf of workers and the right to organize!
(The Catholic Labor Network)