On Wednesday, June 27, the Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. This ruling is a bold escalation in the ongoing campaign by the right to clear the U.S. workplace of all resistance and any fetter to its unrelenting drive to maximize profit and control.
Specifically, Janus extends “right to work” restrictions to public-sector unions nationally. That is, it prohibits these unions from assessing “fair share” or “agency” fees: a portion of union dues charged to workers who choose not to join the union but who are covered by the contract and must be defended by the union. These agency fees exist in only 20 states but these are also the states with the bulk of unionized public-sector workers in the U.S.
Mark Janus, a child-welfare worker for the state of Illinois, objected to paying his “fair share” fee because he opposed the union’s political positions, particularly its financial support for Hillary Clinton. The Court, having already set the precedent that money is speech in the infamous Citizens United case in 2010, found that being forced to pay his “agency fee” violated Mark Janus’ right to free speech.
Janus follows the Court’s other recent ruling in Epic Systems vs. Lewis which restricts the right of workers in the private sector to use class-action lawsuits against breaches of labor law by their employers. It also follows three Trump executive orders in May which make it easier to fire federal workers and undermine the role of unions representing federal workers.
But this right-wing Supreme Court has not just attacked workers’ rights. It has undermined voting rights, weakened women’s access to information about abortion, and upheld gerrymandering and Trump’s racist travel ban. All of this before Trump gets a chance to choose a second nominee to the Court!
A big section of the ruling class supports the no-holds-barred attack on workers’ rights. However, there are elements of the elite who worry that destroying the organizations which traditionally represented working people – in a society where social inequality has reached record levels and where working-class anger is boiling – is to invite an uncontrolled social upheaval at some point. We need to end the long decline of the labor movement and turn it back into the fighting force it once was and that we desperately need today.
Right to work
“Right to work” originated in the South in the 1940s and ‘50s, an element in the drive to keep Southern workers divided and the South segregated and non-union. Only four states became right to work in the 50 years between 1960 and 2010. After a decades-long, and largely successful, campaign to eliminate unions in private-sector workplaces, right-wing ideologues like the Koch brothers turned their attention to the still union-dense public sector. Since 2012, these forces have mounted well-funded and successful campaigns to enact right to work legislation in six states, some previously considered union strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana, such that a majority of states, 28, are now right to work. The laws are effective: for example, union membership fell by 38.5% between 2010 and 2016 in Wisconsin.
Not limited to any one tactic, the right presses its advantage in the courts at every stage. In 2016, the unions dodged a bullet when the death of Justice Scalia led to a 4-4 tie in Friedrichs v. California Teachers’ Association, a case testing the same question. The very well organized aggressively anti-union forces had Janus waiting in the wings and almost immediately brought it before the Court.
The day Janus was announced, the online offensive to convince members to resign from their unions and to raise funds for the crusade had already begun on sites like “mypaymysay.com.” While it is very hard to predict what the full impact of Janus will be, one estimate is that the public sector unions will lose up to 10% of their national membership at least in the short term.
Nor is it just the right that seeks to take advantage of the Janus ruling. A number of public sector employers, particularly state universities, have been waiting for Janus, hoping it will help them turn the tide against strong demands for better pay and conditions from their workers. Many of these institutions pride themselves on “liberal values” and being “hate free zones” but, in practice, they have close ties to corporate America and are perfectly prepared to take advantage of anti-labor measures from Trump’s Supreme Court.
No serious fightback
Janus will affect many of the biggest unions in the country – SEIU, AFT, NEA, and AFSCME – as well as smaller ones like CWA and NNU. Though the Court’s inclination to rule against the unions was no secret and its decision anticipated for months, the unions failed to launch anything like an equal and opposite fightback.
We urged the labor movement to mobilize its members into the streets to fight the Janus threat. Instead, the leadership has focused on “internal organizing” – trying to establish more connection with rank-and-file members and convince them to stay in the union. This is not wrong, but to convince members to continue paying dues, one needs to show how the union is actually fighting for their interests and mobilize them into action. Unfortunately this approach is the result of decades of labor retreat and accepting endless concessions in order to survive to the point where many unions have lost the capacity to mobilize in a serious way or organize a strike.
Some in the labor movement seem to think Janus is just the sort of kick in the pants that the labor movement needs to get its act together. But this is to confuse issues. The first thing the unions, and especially their leaders, need to do is see Janus and the other recent attacks for the threat that they are. Then there needs to be a strategy for how to build unions’ strength under right-to-work conditions, not just hold on to existing members.
There is also a debate among labor activists about whether to support state-level legislation that ensures unions don’t have to represent non-members in the unionized workplaces. The idea is to punish “freeloaders” or encourage them to join unions by withdrawing services. New York State has already passed a law along these lines. The problem with such laws is that they point away from building solidarity in the workplace. If management attacks non-union workers, the union should win them over by coming to their defense in an effective way.
While points can be made on both sides of this issue we should reject the notion that there is a “legislative fix” for Janus. What we should be doing is fighting to get rid of anti-union laws like the Taylor Law in allegedly union-friendly New York State which prohibits all strikes by public-sector workers. Without the ability to strike, public-sector workers will not be able to effectively fight back in the post-Janus environment.
Teachers show the way
This is why the teachers’ revolts earlier this year are so important. This wave of struggle began with the nine-day walkout in West Virginia and quickly spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. All of these states, except Colorado, are right-to-work and, in all of them, again except Colorado, striking is illegal.
It is important to stress exactly how the teachers won the gains they did in these strikes. First of all, they put forward bold wage demands, not just for themselves but for other school employees and for public-sector workers generally. They linked this to further demands for restoring funding to decimated school systems and taxing big business to pay for it. Second, they were willing to use their collective power, including mass mobilizations, the walkouts themselves, and threats to occupy state capitols as workers did in Wisconsin in 2011. Third, they appealed to the wider working class and rebuilt the idea of solidarity. Finally, they did not rely on the existing, tired union leadership but developed new organizations of struggle, the beginnings of an alternative leadership and even the outlines of new unions. All of these elements are essential to any serious strategy for rebuilding the labor movement today.
The teachers have shown that Janus doesn’t need to be a death sentence. Their revolt is not over and could spread to other states later this year and in 2019. The teachers are giving a clear lead to public-sector workers generally whose unions are specifically targeted by Janus.
But there are other signs of a brewing fightback including a number of important organizing drives. 5,000 JetBlue flight attendants with the Transport Workers Union recently won a recognition vote. The IAM is close to forcing a vote to unionize 16,000 Delta ramp and cargo workers and are also working to organize the 20,000 flight attendants at Delta. Winning these drives at Delta would be of enormous importance in rebuilding the labor movement in the strategic airline industry. Also of great significance is the recent successful vote to unionize 250 flight line workers at Boeing in South Carolina coming after a long string of defeats in high profile organizing drives in the South especially by the UAW in Tennessee and Mississippi.
But potentially the most important development is the contract dispute at UPS which could lead to a major strike this summer. The 260,000 UPS workers retain the social power they had when they went on strike in 1997 and a strike would have a major economic impact. There is a enormous desire to fight against the threat of a two-tier contract for regular drivers and against horrible working conditions.
No time to lose
These developments point to the potential for rebuilding a fighting labor movement – the best and most effective way to respond to the anti-labor attacks raining down from the right-wing Supreme Court and Trump administration. A very striking a new Gallup poll shows unions have more support from the general public than at any point since 2003. In the states where teachers rebelled, teachers are joining the unions. The New York Times quoted Ed Allen, president of the of the Oklahoma City AFT: “We’ve seen a 13 percent jump in membership because of the walkout.” Allen also points out that teachers are becoming increasingly engaged on the political front as well: “We have over 300 people signed up to work in political campaigns. We’ve never seen those kinds of numbers before” (6/28/2018). This engagement is a very positive development.
But it should also be asked: where were the “friends of labor” in the leadership of the Democratic Party as the attacks on the unions piled up? Their almost complete silence should not be surprising given that the party establishment long ago stopped even pretending to represent the interests working people. When the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress between 2008 and 2010 they completely failed to bring forward the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which would have made organizing workplaces substantially easier. This was after promising unions that passing EFCA would be a top priority. Instead, Obama led the charge against teacher unions as part of the corporate and bipartisan drive to privatize education.
The unions desperately need a new political strategy. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 showed that a candidate with a pro-working-class program could raise tens of millions without any corporate support. If unions put their resources into supporting independent working-class candidates standing on a fighting program – including Medicare for All, a federal $15 minimum wage, tuition free college, as well as massive investment in rebuilding our infrastructure and transitioning to renewable energy – instead of shovelling tens of millions to do-nothing corporate politicians this would be an enormous step forward.
The other reactionary decisions of the Supreme Court in recent weeks also underline the necessity of the labor movement standing proactively on the side of all the oppressed. The unions need to take the lead in fighting Trump’s attempts to criminalize immigrants, in the assault on women’s reproductive rights and against racism and sexism generally. The social power of the working class is vital to defeating the agenda of the right and to building a sustained mass movement that can drive out Trump.
The Janus ruling is clearly a major attack on the ability of working people in this country to organize against corporate domination in the workplace. It should be a wake up call to activists of the need to fight for a new direction in union organizing drives, contract fights and in terms of the unions’ political strategy. Turning things around will require forging a new leadership layer who can redevelop fighting traditions. The emerging new socialist movement in the U.S. has a key role to play in all this. The teachers revolt and other developments point toward a redevelopment of the class struggle and are raising the sights of working people but there is no time to lose.