Union Rights in Question at SCOTUS

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case Janus v AFSCME, and the decision will likely shape the future of unions in America. Janus concerns one employee in Illinois who’s not a member of AFSCME and doesn’t want to pay fair-share fees, which are sometimes required to cover the cost of representing non-members, since they don’t pay membership dues. This avoids the free rider problem that has dogged unions since their inception.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled to protect the rights of public sector unions to collect fair share fees from employees who don’t join them. In fact SCOTUS has upheld unions’ constitutionality as recently as 2016.

In this case, the argument centers around free speech and politics -- some argue that when public sector unions bargain with the federal government, the negotiations are inherently political. They say workers shouldn’t be forced to pay for unions when unions promote political speech they don’t agree with, and that being forced to do so violates their First Amendment right.

To be clear, federal law already prohibits spending non-members’ money on political activities, and unions are required to treat members and non-members the same when bargaining. Conservatives are using this case to try to weaken union power, both in collective bargaining and in political organizing, since unions have historically supported Democratic candidates.

As a lifelong union member and union leader, I can speak from my own experience about the importance of unions to public sector workers. I remember when new teachers were hired into our district, some would balk at being required to pay fair-share fees. They thought that if they didn't have to pay fees everything would be the same, except they would have a little more money in their pockets.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

All they needed to do was talk to members who had worked in non-union settings to understand how unions raise wages for members and non-members. I explained to them that many people died bringing unions into being. Unions give workers a collective voice, since few employers seriously consider the issues their workers face unless they absolutely have to. I’ve been the one at the bargaining table many times--I know how contentious it can be.

The Republican party has, for a long time, been on the side of the rich, while the Democratic party has long championed the working class. That is why I am a Democrat. That is why Unions usually support Democratic candidates. Unions aren’t perfect, and we should be doing all we can to make unions work more effectively with businesses to better serve the members they are supposed to represent. Trying to gut the bargaining power of unions in the United States, however, is a nonstarter.

It is my hope that the Supreme Court continues to uphold the rights of labor, as they have done for decades, and that it reaffirms the legality of fair share fees for public sector unions. If not, it will certainly set the union movement back decades and make life even more difficult for hard-working Americans.

Janet GarrettComment