There is no sugar-coating Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on public employee unions. The conservative majority’s 5-4 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME is a blow to the one sector of organized labor that still has significant clout.
In that sense, it is also yet another blow to the American middle class and to efforts to close the gaping income disparities in this country.
And it will be a blow to labor peace. The ruling – which will now let teachers, firefighters, public health workers and other government employees enjoy the benefits of union contracts with no requirement that they actually pay into the union – unravels a legal precedent that, for decades, has discouraged unions from using militancy to gin up solidarity and compete for members. Expect more public employee strikes and walkouts.
In California, the blow won’t come overnight. Though some public employee unions here will take a financial hit, and some expect over time to lose as much as a third of their members, most have prepared.
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That’s good, both because radical change is traumatic, and because it gives an important statewide political force time to consider its responsibility both to its members and the taxpaying public.
There’s little support here for the far-right lawsuit first brought by the Republican governor of Illinois, a private equity mogul, and then fronted by Mark Janus, a state child support worker. Californians generally don’t buy the argument, as the court did, that everything a public sector union does is by definition political, so no one who disagrees with its politics should have to ante up even for the administrative costs of collective bargaining and representation.
California isn’t among the 28 “right to work states” where such “fair share” fees in lieu of union dues are already outlawed. And voters here have elected so many labor-backed Democrats that they control both legislative houses. But too many California politicians also are too afraid to push back against government employee unions, and public support has been up and down, post recession. So it might not hurt for labor organizations to have to sell themselves.
At the same time, there’s real danger in this bid to cripple unions and, through them, the Democratic Party. As it is, California’s Republican Party is a sick, Trump-shaped shadow of its former self.
Without healthy political organizations, including labor, American democracy is too easily perverted by the whims of the super-rich and the artificial amplification that money buys them.
Janus was part of one such whim, a long game bankrolled through nonprofits by a cadre of rich ideologues, including the libertarian Koch brothers and GOP industrialist Richard Uihlein, who, despite enormous wealth, seem to view themselves as victims. For some time now, they and other conservative groups have been lobbing union challenges into the court pipeline and lobbying public employees – door to door in some areas – to quit their unions and save the $100 or so a month they pay in fees or dues.
It’s working, which is why California labor groups pushed state lawmakers last year for permission to pitch new public sector workers at orientation. This year, a slew of pro-union legislation, some rational, some far less so, will make it harder, temporarily at least, for members to abruptly quit, and for anti-union lobbyists to goad them. Eventually, however, public employee unions here will feel the impact.
This is why they should get out in front of the one issue that eventually could cost them Californians’ support – soaring public employee retirement benefits and pensions, which burden too many cities and school districts. Nearly 1.4 million Californians are in public sector unions; SEIU Local 1000 alone represents about 100,000 people, half of them in and around Sacramento. That’s a big retirement bill, at taxpayer expense.
If unions don’t give a little, pension reform is likely to show up on the 2020 ballot. We get that this is a big ask in what is an existential battle. But now would be a great time for California unions to own up to their own fair share of blame for this state’s impending pension meltdown, and to help negotiate us all out of this problem.
With conservatives in control of the nation’s most powerful court, they’re going to need all the friends they can get.