Supreme Court Delivers Blow to Public Sector Unions – Might Make Unions Stronger

Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, argues that even though public sector unions will suffer economically from the Supreme Court’s Janus vs AFSCME decision, it has already caused them to mobilize and organize, making their members more militant and politicized

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued another major new ruling on Wednesday, this time one that will make it more difficult for public sector unions to raise money and to organize. The 5-to-4 decision, with all five conservative justices in the majority, ruled that requiring government workers who are not union members to pay union fees is unconstitutional because it violates the freedom of speech. The case, known as Janus vs. AFSCME, reverses decades of precedent under which unions were allowed to collect fees from nonmembers under the argument that nonmembers benefit from union activities when a contract is won.

Mark Janus, who works for the state government of Illinois, sued the AFSCME union with the argument that union policies even on nonpolitical issues such as contract negotiation is a form of speech and that he should not be required to support it. The court’s majority agreed. Here’s what Mark Janus had to say after the decision was announced.

MARK JANUS: I don’t want to be forced to pay something to somebody just to hold a government job. I want to make my own decision, and I shouldn’t have to pay a fee just to do something that I like to do and that I enjoy to do.

REPORTER: Well, Mark, there are now forecasts that government employees will leave the union en masse. We’ve got the NEA suggesting that over the next couple of years they’ll lose 300000 members, many of them teachers. Your response to that?

MARK JANUS: Well you know, I, it’s, it’s, I can’t really respond, because it’s still kind of up in the air, I think, a little bit. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop out in the near future.

GREG WILPERT: Very shortly after the court issued its ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy served for 30 years, and often was one of the swing votes on the court who occasionally voted with the court’s liberal minority. His retirement means that Trump will now have an opportunity to appoint a second Supreme Court justice, which will probably move the court even further to the right.

Joining me to discuss the so-called Janus decision is Larry Cohen. Larry is a former president of the Communication Workers of America and chair of Our Revolution, the group that Bernie Sanders founded. Thanks for joining us today, Larry.

LARRY COHEN: Pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: So in your estimation, what will the Supreme Court decision mean for the labor movement, particularly for public sector unions? What’s your reaction to this?

LARRY COHEN: Well, I think it goes in two directions. So on the one hand, unions have been getting prepared for this for several years. There was a similar case last year that deadlocked 4-4 when Justice Scalia passed away. And so everyone had expected that decision, Fredricks, based on a California case, to have gone the same way. So what unions have done, whether it’s AFSCME, the union that was sued here, developed a program AFSCME Strong, where they redoubled the efforts to go to every member and non-member about what’s at stake when unions not only bargain but fight in the legislature for decent healthcare, or funding for their actual jobs themselves, which the legislature controls.

So I think that unions are really well-prepared for this. The good news about that preparation is that it has gotten unions in the public sector to focus much more on every member and every non-member, and less of a top-down kind of structure and more of a bottom-up structure based on supporting activists, we often call them stewards, shop stewards, on the job, in every office or garage or workplace that carries the union issues to every member. Has discussions, and then feeds back that kind of information.

So my real hope, based on my own experience of really 39 years in the CWA, Communication Workers Union, is that it will make unions stronger, the exact opposite of what the funders-. It’s not about Mark Janus. This is about the Koch Brothers and the billionaires that want to take down public sector unions, one, because they want to get rid of government service. And two, because those unions are very politically active. Their members understand that they need to be active to get workers’ rights candidates elected. So you get rid of these public sector unions or weaken them, and the right wing in this country gets a twofer, right. Weaker unions, weaker political opposition to the right-wing agenda.

But I actually think to a large extent that will be neutralized by many more unions becoming what I call grassroots unions, based from the workplace out, not based from a union office in. I’m hopeful.

LARRY COHEN: Well, that’s an interesting point, considering also that you know, there have been some analyses saying that in the 1930s, for example, the unions had hardly any rights but were far more militant than they are today. So did you see a parallel there as well?

LARRY COHEN: Yeah. I mean, my own work as a public worker in New Jersey, originally we had no rights. There was certainly no representation fees. And you know, we fought for those rights, and eventually we got carried in at the beginning of the former decision from 40 years ago, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. And we did negotiate agency fees. But you know, we called ourselves at the time the State Workers Organizing committee. It was totally grassroots. And yeah, I think workers are doing that. Teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona. They’re not using legal structures. They’re using old-fashioned, we can work this out together, old-fashioned solidarity principles. They got to negotiate things in those states, well, particularly West Virginia and Arizona, that they couldn’t have done in a traditional state like New York. They got to negotiate about health care. They got to negotiate about school vouchers, privatization, classroom size.

So I think you’ll see a labor movement, I’m very hopeful, that’s even more successful. And we need it in this country. We’re near the bottom of any democracy in the world in terms of workers’ rights. I’m convinced, all kinds of signs, fast food workers, others, that people are organizing in their own ways, they’re rising up like you just said, similar to the 1930s, before any labor law existed for the most part in this country.

GREG WILPERT: But let me just kind of play devil’s advocate for a second. I mean, you know, unionization has been declining quite steadily since the 1950s. Back then about a third of the labor force was unionized. Now it’s less than, or close to- it’s around, I don’t know, 11 or 12 percent. So some people are predicting that definitely this decision, this court decision, will mean that more people will leave unions. As was mentioned in that Fox News report, up to 300000 teachers. And I saw another statistic earlier that said something like 8 percent of public sector unionization would decline by something like 8 percent of its membership. So are you suggesting perhaps that at this point, the union movement has reached, so to speak, rock bottom, and the only way forward is up?

LARRY COHEN: Well, so, as you know, you’re talking about several parallel organizing tracks in the United States. So the national legislation, the National Labor Relations Act, only covers about half of the workforce. All private sector. The Railway Labor Act covers railways and airlines. Public sector is up to each state. We’re the only democracy in the world where federal workers have no bargaining rights. They have what’s called memorandums, and they’ve never had representation fees or agency [shop].

So I think that, you know, you get a mixed bag here. And I think in some of that conversation membership and fee payers are conflated, when in fact they’re two different things. So I think membership is likely to hold firm. Obviously the number of fee payers is going to drop to close to zero. That will affect union resources. But I’m one of the optimists that believes that we need to learn the lessons of those teachers in those four states I mentioned, led by West Virginia, and organize in different ways, and that we can build a new labor movement. Not quite from the ashes of the old. They’re not the ashes here, there’s still 15 million union members.

So I think it is very hard in the U.S. The court has played a role since the 1940s, because they’ve said that employers in the private sector have, quote, free speech rights as an employer. That means they can run an all-out campaign against workers where they can insist that every supervisor adheres to corporate speech. That’s not free speech in any other country. So there’s lots of obstacles here to the rights of workers to organize themselves, which is what the core labor law was written about in the mid-1930s, in 1935.

We have real problems here in terms of what are the rights of workers to organize, and when they do organize what are their rights to negotiate. That’s really the core problem in this country. This decision today is basically a whack at the finances of public sector unions. Important, but not really the central problem. The central problem is bargaining rights and organizing rights. And you’re seeing a mass movement beginning in this country, similar to 80 years ago in the ’30s, to rebuild those rights from the bottom up. And I’m confident my own organization, Our Revolution, with millions of people, will throw down with those workers, whether it’s teachers in West Virginia, or fast food workers in New York City. And that kind of community support is really critical to changing the way the free market operates in this country when it comes to workers’ rights.

GREG WILPERT: So finally, I just want to turn to the court again. As I mentioned in the introduction, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his resignation. Presumably, Trump will appoint an even more conservative judge to replace Kennedy. What do you expect this to mean for working people and for labor unions?

LARRY COHEN: That will mean more trouble. The only way that will be stopped, in my opinion, is if Democrats are able to elect two or three additional senators in November, and that nomination it’s likely delayed until after that election. And it could be delayed until next year, 2019. If that does not happen, yes. You will see Trump appoint probably somebody even more of a right-winger than Gorsuch, his last, his first appointment. And I think they will continue to attack the rights of working class people, black, brown, and white, as I say. It’s all of us. And we will continue to have to find new ways to organize and fight back until we can change the political structure, which we will do.

The one thing about working people, whether it’s here or anywhere in the world, is we know how to stand up and fight back, no matter how hard we have to resist. We have to do it, and we will do it, and we will find a way to do it.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this. I was speaking to Larry Cohen, former president of the Communication Workers of America, and chair of Our Revolution. Thanks for having joined us today, Larry.

LARRY COHEN: My pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. Also, if you like stories such as this one, I want to remind you that we are, we recently started our summer fundraiser and need your help to reach our goal of raising $200000. Every dollar that you donate will be matched. Unlike practically all other news outlets, we do not accept support from governments or corporations. Please do what you can today.