Don’t gut public sector unions, Supreme Court. They’re California’s middle class

Public employee unions are a force in California. They’re why minimum wages here are rising to $15 an hour and why farmworkers get overtime. They got voters to raise taxes to support public schools during the recession and, less happily, negotiated pensions with costs that are sky high.

Public sector unions also have helped keep Democrats in power in blue states and kept organized labor from extinction. For this reason, they are a thorn in the side of ideological conservatives, who blame them for big government.

Now victory appears to be at hand for the anti-union forces. On Monday, the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that they will outlaw a key source of financial backing for public employee unions.

We wish the justices would think twice – and not just because such a decision would disrupt California and undo 41 years of legal precedent.

The case at hand, Janus v. AFSCME, is a classic example of an ideological pet peeve posing as a public policy problem. Its backers are a network of conservative billionaires and their foundations whose views have been artificially amplified. The central issue – a line item in union dues known as “agency” or “fair share” fees, which cover the cost of collective bargaining and can be charged to non-union as well as union members – ought to be dealt with by the states.

The fees stem from a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has stood as a compromise between union and non-union workers in unionized workplaces. That ruling reaffirmed that no public employee can be forced to join a union and no non-union member can be forced to pay for a union’s political activities.

But the court also found that everyone, member or not, should kick in for the cost of the bargaining that improves wages and working conditions. “Free riders” shouldn’t get the benefit of representation without paying a “fair share” of the cost.

That perfectly reasonable argument has underpinned thousands of contracts and kept unions vital. But conservative think tanks, including some underwritten by the Koch and Mercer families, have obsessed over it.

They argue everything a public sector union negotiates is, by definition, political because government spending is influenced. That view has made its way to the high court.

When California lawyer Edward DuMont argued Monday that contract issues such as mileage reimbursement were apolitical, Chief Justice John Roberts fired back that “it’s all money,” and more mileage for workers equals less for, say, welfare.

This argument was poised to succeed two years ago with a case out of California involving the teacher’s union, but derailed by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Now, with President Donald Trump’s appointee, Neil Gorsuch, joining Justices Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, the fix is in.

It shouldn’t be. Collective bargaining isn’t political speech. But destroying the main pushback to rich, free market ideologues verges on anti-democratic.

And unions matter here. Nearly 1.4 million Californians – teachers, firefighters, clerks, janitors, IT staff – belong to public sector unions. Many more non-union-members owe their wages and benefits to a union’s negotiating power. Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union alone represents 100,000 people in this state, half of them here in Sacramento.

Flawed though unions may be, to the extent this state still has a racially and ethnically diverse middle class, it is arguably because of organized labor. As public sector unions here prepare for the worst, they need to get that message out. They need to make it clear that they are not just here to take and that they have taxpayers’ backs on thorny questions like pension costs.

Because, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested, the people behind Janus v. AFSCME “are basically arguing, do away with unions.”

They are. And it isn’t right.