On February 24, 2018, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could have profound negative impact on low wage workers in Oregon and across the nation. The case, Janus v. AFSCME, involves the issue of whether public employees unions may charge non-members who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement for the costs of negotiating and administering the contract that benefits them. Unions have an obligation to provide fair representation to all workers covered by a contract, even if they are not members of the union, or do not pay union dues. In 1977, the Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that unions could not require nonmembers to join the union, nor pay union dues to pay for political and speech activities with which they disagree. However, Abood established that such workers could be charged agency fees for their fair share of the cost of negotiating and administering the contract. The plaintiff in Janus is trying to overturn this long-settled principle.
The case currently before the Supreme Court comes from Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Janus is not a member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local chapter (the union working with many public sector workers in the state). But in Illinois and some 21 other states, including Oregon, workers may be required to pay “fair-share” fees, even if they decline to join the union, because they still benefit from the union’s bargaining activities.
Janus, however, argues that because public sector unions enter into bargaining agreements with the government, all of their activity should be seen as political. And because he disagrees with that political activity, he wants to be able to opt out of paying any fees to the union. Anything less, Janus and his lawyers argue, is an infringement on his First Amendment rights.
AFSCME and other public sector unions disagree. Instead, they see the case simply as a political attack on one of the last strongholds of the US union movement. According to NPR, citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “while the union membership rate in the private sector is a meager 6.5 percent, it’s more than a third among public employees.” This case is one part of a coordinated attack by right wing groups aimed at defunding and disrupting organized labor--the last major obstacle to complete corporate dominance of our politics and governance.
In 2016, the Supreme Court heard a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but deadlocked in a 4 – 4 decision following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But with a full court, including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, a conservative majority is expected to overturn Abood, effectively turning the public sector into a “right to work” zone.
The effects on public employees unions and their members are likely to be severe. After Wisconsin public employees lost the right to charge fair share agency fees, public employee unions lost most of their ability to bargain for and win fair conditions and to play much of a role in the politics of the state. 2014 High School Teacher of the Year Rick Erickson was happy with his job in 2009, making $35,770 a year teaching chemistry and physics. Then, Wisconsin passed a law which eliminated agency fees and dramatically limited the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain with employers on wages, benefits, and working conditions. After this change, Erickson saw his take-home pay drop dramatically: He now makes $30,650. The local union he once led—the Bayfield Education Association—is no longer certified to collectively bargain, so he can't formally negotiate with the school district for things like prep time and sick days. He pays more for health care and his pension, and he says both he and his wife (also a teacher) may now not be able to retire until they are much older than they had planned. Meanwhile Wisconsin—once a proud bastion of worker political power—is now firmly in right-wing, anti-worker control, and voted to elect Donald Trump.
Most of the workers NWJP represents do not have a union, and almost none are public employees, so why should this possible impending damage to public employee unions matter to us? I suggest that there are at least 6 reasons: 1) public employment under a collective bargaining agreement has been an important path out of poverty for workers of color and for women; 2) higher wages for unionized workers have been shown to lift wages for all workers in the economy; 3) the role that public unions have played in legislative elections and ballot measure battles has been critical, partly off-setting the huge financial resources available to the right; 4) the advocacy of labor in general—and public employee unions in particular—has been very important in each of the recent legislative advances for low wage workers we’ve been able to achieve in Oregon over the last few years, including raising the minimum wage, winning paid sick leave, attacking wage theft, and guaranteeing equal pay for equal work; 5) just as important, strong policy advocacy to resist efforts of business to degrade worker protections is an important barrier to keep our state from moving backwards on workers’ rights; and 6) the public employees unions have generously pitched in to support efforts of grass roots organizations like PCUN, Causa, and NWJP.
We will probably see a decision of the Supreme Court as early as June. Labor leaders in Oregon are hard at work planning for the worst, and devising ways to adapt and survive, to avoid Oregon becoming another Wisconsin. We should keep informed of these efforts and support them however we can. We are called to pay particular attention during this critical time; we must be creative, resourceful, and energetic in responding to this challenge, ready and willing to rise to the occasion, to join together in solidarity with progressive allies as one of our very highest priorities.