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OPINION: Janus v. AFSCME threatens the strength of unions

 

Don’t be fooled by anti-union rhetoric

On one side of the pathway leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court, people wave signs that say “Stand With Workers.” On the other, people tout a banner “Stand Fight Unite.”  It’s hard to distinguish what exactly they’re disagreeing about, until you look a little closer at the signs that stay “Stand with Mark”—referring to Illinois State Employee Mark Janus, who has been aided by conservative donors to bring his case against his $45 monthly union agency fee to the Supreme Court.

Employees of unionized industries in closed-shop states have union agency fees deducted from their paychecks (like taxes), to pay for collective bargaining—their union’s negotiation on their behalf for fair wages, safe working conditions, anti discrimination protections, paid sick days and healthcare. It is a mandatory, fair-share fee to prevent non-union employees from “free-riding” the union’s labor of negotiating on their behalf.  

Janus argues that he should not be required to pay the agency fee on the basis that it is a violation of free speech, and that his union presents a financial burden to the state that he does not agree with. (For a full assessment of the arguments in the case, see this informative article from the US Supreme Court blog.)

The true motive of Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is to weaken unions. Janus and his conservative backers operate under the principle that these fees are unnecessary—that workers would be better off negotiating their own pay and working conditions. Hence, the similarity between signs on either side of the Pickett line—conservatives have represented the weakening of unions as “workers’ choice” or “right to work.”

In reality, siding with Janus, and thereby draining funds from public sector unions, could “do measurable harm to Democrats’ electoral chances and further weaken the political voice of working class people” (Brookings Institution).

It takes only a short history lesson on the Gilded Age to understand why unions are necessary, and why it is in the public’s best interest to ensure unions are strong. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, that would be very bad news for the AFSCME (which represents 1.6 million current and former public sector workers). To do so, the Supreme Court would have to overrule Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which solidified collective bargaining in the public sector and said that states can require non-union employees to pay agency fees. Ruling in favor of Janus would undermine how public-sector unions are funded—thereby jeopardizing their ability to negotiate contracts for employees and, in turn, jeopardizing those employees’ protections, wages and livelihoods.

It’s selfish for a guy who doesn’t want to pay his $45 to try to dismantle the entire system designed to protect anti discrimination, safe working conditions, and fair pay.

The “free speech” and “right to work” rhetoric can be disingenuous and obfuscate the real issue. Janus pretends to believe in these equivocations, because he has wealthy donors whispering in his ear. Taking away the requirement for unionized public-sector employees to pay union agency fees would essentially drain funding from public-sector unions, which, are critical to workplace equality for women and people of color.

Among public-sector workers, black women also see a 15 percent increase in wages and Latinas see a seven percent increase in wages when they have union representation. These women receive not just higher pay, but more equitable pay: The gender wage gap for union-represented women working in the public sector is 20 percent smaller than the gap experienced by their non-union-represented counterparts and by workers overall. —SCOTUSBlog 

Those in support of Janus might point to the First Amendment, might claim that unions can survive without mandatory agency fees, or might claim that getting rid of those fees would empower individuals to bargain for themselves. But make no mistake: weakening public sector unions puts working families at a steeper disadvantage and hurts workers’ ability to improve their wages and working conditions. Hopefully, the Supreme Court sees through this attempt to disarm working families.

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