A pending Supreme Court case threatens to silence workers’ voices

A Labor Day rally in Kansas City, 2017.
A Labor Day rally in Kansas City, 2017. tljungblad@kcstar.com

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the latest case attacking public employee unions seemed inevitable.

Labor leaders were resigned, knowing a majority of the justices seem bent on ending labor’s ability to levy dues on workers who seek a free ride. Right-to-work advocates and their rich benefactors anticipated it, seeing it as a way to weaken one of the few obstacles to their political ascendancy.

The case, brought by a child welfare worker in Illinois named Mark Janus against the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, is ripped from the briefs filed last year by Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs against the California Teachers Association.

The high court seemed ready to overturn a 40-year precedent and restrict labor’s ability to charge the fees last year. But Justice Antonin Scalia died, and the court deadlocked 4-4. With the addition of President Donald Trump’s nominee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court is all but certain to vote 5-4 against the unions, probably in 2018. It shouldn’t.

We hoped that the justices considering the Friedrichs case would uphold the 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, and still do as they consider Janus.

Nowhere will the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling be more profound than in California, the biggest state with the most public employees. Some unions expect to lose 30 percent of their membership if the Supreme Court rules against them.

California and Illinois are among the 20-plus states that have laws stating that public employees need not pay their share of dues that directly fund unions’ political activity. But they must pay their fair share of costs related to contract negotiations, representation of members in grievances and similar union business. Like Friedrichs, Janus seeks to get out from under that obligation, saying he disagrees with positions his union takes on, for example, pension law. The issue, right-to-work advocates say, is one of free speech.

“The most important part of freedom of expression is the right not to conform,” the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation argues in a friend of the court brief.

We don’t believe individuals should be compelled to speak or not. But the Janus case is less about Janus’ free speech than it is about the super-rich people who fund anti-union legal aid organizations and want to hobble organized labor.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, filed a brief on behalf of 18 other state attorneys general, all of them Republicans, urging that the court overturn the 1977 precedent.

The brief cited the huge public employee pension debt in Detroit and attributed bankruptcies in the Stockton and San Bernardino to public employee unions, rather than mismanagement by incompetent elected officials. But Schuette’s argument boiled down to what he called the “enormous power of the modern public-sector union and the often vast public-policy consequences of its collective bargaining activities.”

In other words, the collective power of hundreds of thousands of union members is formidable. True enough, labor has power and it costs business. It advocates for higher minimum wages, gender pay equity, eight-hour work days, family leave and greater workplace protections against toxins, to name a few.

Public employees do wield significant clout in the California Legislature, although the California Chamber of Commerce wins its fair share on behalf of business. Public employee pensions and retiree health benefits clearly drain money that could be spent on services, as detailed in a study by researchers led by Joe Nation, a former Democratic Assemblyman from Marin County. For many cities, Sacramento included, pensions costs are unsustainable, The Bee’s Brad Brannon reported.

Legislation pushed by labor in 1999 vastly increased pensions, and labor fights even modest efforts to limit costs, while labor-backed politicians subvert savings brought about by pension overhauls.

The Sacramento Bee’s Adam Ashton documented one such instance, obtaining Board of Equalization member Jerome Horton’s email from 2012 in which he wrote: “I would recommend that we do everything possible to excellerate (sic) our hiring process and assist our team members with retirement plans.”

Horton’s embarrassing spelling aside, he shamelessly pressed the board to hire 25 people at the end of 2012, 10 of whom started on Dec. 31, 2012, the day before more modest pensions took effect. But we blame Horton and voters who elected him, not the 25 workers who accepted those jobs.

The website, Unionstats.com, shows the implications of a concerted attack on public employee unions. There were 187,000 public employee union members in Wisconsin in 2010, the year before Republican Scott Walker, an anti-labor crusader, became governor. In 2016, there were 106,000 public employee union members. In California, Unionstats.com’s data show, public employee union membership held steady between 2010 and 2016, at 1.4 million.

Those 1.4 million public employees have used their collective power to get under the skin and into the wallets of rich people. In 2016, the California Teachers Association spent $20.5 million in a $54 million campaign to win passage of Proposition 55, an initiative to extend an income tax on high earners, generating as much as $9 billion year. The tax is not what we prefer, but the main beneficiary will be public schools, which are basic to the state’s future.

Collectively, public employees do have clout in California, but not as much as the handful of billionaires who have gained undue influence since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision led to unlimited corporate campaign spending. And while Democrats control California politics, thanks partly to labor’s support, Republicans control most state legislatures and Congress, partly because of their heavy-handed use of the power to gerrymander district lines and weakened unions.

Janus v. AFSCME is about speech, but not the speech Janus’ lawyers describe. It’s about speech come election time. The oligarchs behind Janus’ lawsuit know they’d have a much easier time winning at the polls if only they could stifle the collective voice of organized labor. We hope Supreme Court justices see that, and maintain the law as it is.