The End of Public Sector Unions?
An impending Supreme Court ruling on public sector union fees could mean spell their end as the last remaining bastion of unionization in the US says Bill Fletcher, Jr.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The US Supreme Court heard arguments for what could be one of its most important cases in labor history. The case is Janus vs. AFSCME has to do with the issue of whether public sector unions are allowed to require non-members to pay union fees. Janus is a worker and AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Now that conservatives have the majority in the Supreme Court again, with Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch, it seems likely that the court will rule against AFSCME that would make life much more difficult for public sector unions as public sector employees stop. If they stop paying union fees while still benefiting from union services.
Joining me now to discuss the consequences of this decision is Bill Fletcher. Bill has served as a senior staff person in the National AFL-CIO. His most relevant book for this discussion is “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Thanks for joining me, Bill.
BILL FLETCHER: My pleasure. Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, a large part of the argument heard in the Supreme Court centered around unions basically forcing non-members to speak in favor of political candidates that unions chose to support. Now, aside from the questionable argument of conservatives that money is a speech and that speech is protected by the first amendment, is it even true that public sector unions force their members to support certain candidates?
BILL FLETCHER: No, it’s completely ludicrous. Anyone who knows anything about unions knows that that’s not true. A union is an organization of workers. Unions endorse candidates. Usually there’s some sort of vote by the executive board of the union. Sometimes there’s an referendum of the union members and the union takes a position. But even after taking a position, it’s not as if the members of the union have to do or have to go along with that vote.
What’s really at stake here, Sharmini, is that it costs money to represent workers. That’s the basic issue. This is not about freedom of speech. So, when a worker is represented by a union, that means that if a worker has problems on the job, the union is there to help them and the union is there to represent them. That takes resources. That doesn’t happen based on magic. So, the idea of what are called agency fees is to help to defray the cost of representation. That’s what’s going on.
The conservatives don’t want that because what they want is to appeal to greed on the part of individuals so that you’ll have individual workers who will say, “Well, I’m not gonna pay anything, yet I want to be represented by the union.” That’s what’s at stake in this court decision.
SHARMINI PERIES: They might not even actually say that they want to be represented by the union because they’re going to benefit from having the union in the shop anyway. So, one of the things about all of this is that the likelihood of this actually passing and we already know that when this case was before the courts last year, when there were only eight justices and it was divided four to four, so now that the Republicans or the conservatives have Gorsuch on the court, it seems likely that the conservatives will win. Now, if this is the case, what will be the consequences for public sector union membership and their ability to participate in political processes?
BILL FLETCHER: Well, there’s two points there, Sharmini. First, I don’t think anything except death is a sure thing. So, I don’t necessarily think that we should just simply assume that the court will do this because when the court was split in the Friedrichs decision, which is the one that you were discussing before, that was because Justice Scalia had died. So, there were different things at stake. Some of the justices could vote or the conservatives could vote a particular way and know that it would make no difference.
What’s different now is that if the justices rule in favor of Janus, they are going against more than 20 years of precedent and the court normally doesn’t like to do that. So, it’s not to me a sure thing. I think it’s likely that they will, but it’s not a sure thing.
Now, if the court does rule in favor of Janus and against AFSCME, what this will mean is that individuals who are paying agency fees will no longer have to do that and they will mean that they will be represented. It means that they will have the benefits. It means that they can file grievances and do all of that for free. And the effect of that will be to weaken the ability of the union to operate because if there are large numbers of workers who are asking the union as an organization to work on their behalf, yet they’re not paying anything? Think about it this way, Sharmini. Imagine a city that made taxation voluntary, yet guaranteed everybody free public education, police, fire and sewer. Just imagine that. There’s no institution in the United States that would accept such a thing, yet that’s in fact what is being asked of unions.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, union membership has been declining for decades now. What do you think unionization rate in public and private sectors and what are the reasons for the decline?
BILL FLETCHER: Several things. The unionization in the United States overall is about 11%. Unionization in the public sector is around 30%. In the private sector, it’s about 7%. And the reasons for this decline since 1955 when unionization was about 35% rest in two areas. One is very vicious repression by employers and resistance, actually there’s a third area which is labor law, which has not caught up with the changes in workforce since the 1930s. And the third factor is the unions themselves, that the unions since, certainly since the 1950s, have not engaged in the kind of organizing, bargaining, that they need to in order to retain and grow. Retain the kind of membership that they need and to grow.
There has been for too many years of lackluster approach to organizing that began to change in early 1990s when new leaderships emerged in a number of unions. But even then, there was not enough of an internal transformation process. So, these three factors contributed to this situation.
Let me just say one other thing about this. Many people in the United States do not realize that the United States has the history, the most violent history, of labor management relations of any of the advanced capitalist countries and that is because of employer resistance, not because of what workers do. Ever since the 1800s, employers have tried to do everything in their power to stop workers from organizing and stop workers from bargaining.
In the public sector where there’s been fewer restrictions in terms of organizing, that’s one of the reasons that union membership has been able to grow, except in the south and in the southwest.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, some analysts has argued that the militancy of unions have declined with a closed shop, that they don’t have to really fight for things. Do you agree with that sentiment?
BILL FLETCHER: No. No, you’re talking about this thing called union shops where basically what happens is that after someone is hired, they work for a certain number of days and then they, assuming that they stay on the job, they automatically become union members unless they have some personal or religious objection. No, that’s not what stopped the militancy. What stopped the militancy really goes back to the late 1940s and the development of the Cold War when there were efforts to suppress union militancy through instruments such as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. What happened there is that unions that were the most militant were frequently branded Communist, irrespective of who their leadership was and they were chased out of the union movement in many cases, sometimes actively destroyed.
So, it was that kind of response that had an effect. The other part was that there were those that remained in organized labor that actually believed at a certain point, much like Neville Chamberlain believed in 1938 in facing Nazi Germany, that they had achieved peace in our time and that employers had come to accept unions. And employers never came to accept unions, they just simply were waiting for the best opportunity to move forward and crush unions.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Bill, the Republican resistance to the unionization and supporting unions and so forth, is that largely because unions end you supporting democrats in elections or is this a sort of a Republican values that to support corporations and employers over workers?
BILL FLETCHER: Yeah, no, it’s more the latter. Republicans ideologically, well, let me back up, Sharmini. There was a point when there was actually a so called liberal wing of the Republican party. This is back in the 1960s when you had senators like Jacob Javits, you had Nelson Rockefeller became vice president of the United States. You had a number of Republicans who actually would be described as liberals and they, to different extents, accepted unions.
But there was a current that developed within, or exited within the Republican party, particularly as the Republicans embraced more right wing ideas and constituencies and the idea was that unions got in the way of profits. And unions got in the way of the totalitarian dominance of the workplace by employers. So, this becomes a very, very important ideological point.
Now, the rhetoric of the Republican party is that they would be more open to unions if unions backed them in elections. That’s sort of sophistry because the problem is that in the elections, the Republican candidates more often than not run on platforms that are anti-worker, anti-regulations, anti-protection of workers. So, why would unions support people that are trying to kill us? It doesn’t make any sense. So, it really is something very ideologically driven. There’s this whole notion of so called free enterprise, the free market, individualism, all of these various myths and the idea is that unions get in the way of this.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bill. So much more to discuss on this issue, but let me ask you finally, when is a decision expected to come down and is that the final say?
BILL FLETCHER: It’s expected in late spring. It could be very late, like in June and that’s it. If they decide, they decide.
Now, certainly if there was a change in Congress, it would be possible to rewrite a federal labor legislation. But the real issue right now, Sharmini, is that unions need to assume the worst. That means that they need to be organizing their members, making sure that they’re recruiting people, but also, and in some ways even more importantly, they need to be reaching out to the broader community so that the broader public understands that unions are organizations for economic and social justice, not organizations that are for special interest.
SHARMINI PERIES: Then I must ask you before you go, is there anything that people can do between now and when the decision comes down to influence the decision?
BILL FLETCHER: The Supreme Court always likes to lead people to believe that nothing can be done. My experience is that when people are in the streets, when there are massive protests, when there is a real, strong presence in the media, all of that has an impact on the conscience and the consciousnesses of the Supreme Court justices.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bill. I thank you so much for joining us.
BILL FLETCHER: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.