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Labor Notes’ Samantha Winslow explains how the Supreme Court could weaken public sector worker unions

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. The Supreme Court has decided to take up a case that could have major repercussions for public sector unions. In the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association the plaintiffs are arguing for the overturning of a current law that requires workers to pay fees for union representation even if they are not members. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, the public sector jobs sector nationwide could become, quote-unquote, a right to work. Now joining us to discuss all of this is Samantha Winslow. Samantha is joining us from New York. She is a staff writer for Labor Notes. And before that she was an organizer for SEIU United Healthcare Workers, west in California. Thank you for joining us, Samantha. SAMANTHA WNSLOW, STAFF WRITER, LABOR NOTES: Thanks for having me. DESVARIEUX: So we should note that the court will begin hearing the case in its next session, so that’s not until the fall. But this is a very important case because the court has even decided to take it on. Supporters of right to work legislation say that public sector workers should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to not pay if they don’t want to be in a union. So for you, Samantha, considering that argument, shouldn’t we sort of take a listen to what they have to say? That if in order for them, that they shouldn’t be paying these union dues if they’re not a part of the union. WINSLOW: Well, they have the right to not be in a union right now. And so what the compromise is is that they have to pay a fair share of the dues that full members pay. And the thinking behind that is that they enjoy the benefits of the union contract. They enjoy the wage increases that the union negotiates, and they enjoy the job security. And they can even be represented if they face discipline or some kind of attack from their employer. So that was what the Supreme Court decided three years ago to compromise, to say that yes, you have the right to be a member or not be a member. But you do have to pay a fair share of dues to cover the representation that is required by law. DESVARIEUX: Okay. And current labor law also says that these dues and fees used for union representation cannot be used for political or ideological activities other than representation in bargaining and administering contracts. But isn’t the union activity like bargaining inherently political in some ways? WINSLOW: Well, it is political in that members are engaging in an activity with their employer, but the specific money that goes to politics would be that extra chunk of the dues that the fair share members don’t have to pay. So what it really is is a contract between the employees, the workplace and the employer. And just like any other contract where the agreement is that everybody covered has to pay dues. And just to clarify, the case is actually going to decide whether public sector unions can negotiate a closed shop or not. So it’s up to their employer, whether it’s county or state or an agency to decide whether it’s an open or closed shop. DESVARIEUX: What does that mean, exactly? WINSLOW: What it means is that there are some open shops where membership is voluntary. Even in the public sector there was, San Diego County for example, public employees were in an open shop up until recently. So all this, all the Supreme Court ruling in ’77 said was that you, once you negotiate that closed shop, you’re required to pay that fair share. So it’s giving unions the right to make these contracts with employers in the public sector. DESVARIEUX Okay. Let’s sort of play hypotheticals here. Let’s say the Supreme Court rules in favor of overturning the law and then workers voluntarily decide not to pay for representation. Wouldn’t this be more of a reflection of how public workers feel unions and the current labor movement is really addressing their concerns. So it’s not necessarily the Supreme Court, but these labor unions haven’t been doing their best job at being a adequate representation for these laborers. WINSLOW: Well, I think that that’s a fair question, and I would start by saying that the right to work movement and the business end conservative interests that are going after dues, they’re not really interested in what’s best for workers. They’re not thinking about what’s the best way to improve standards for workers. They’re–on the contrary, they’re thinking of undermining it. But this absolutely poses a challenge for unions, where they now have to think about how to remain relevant to all their members, that they can’t just take for granted that the ten percent or 20 percent or 30 percent who don’t want to be members are going to be paying that fair share fee that they’ve been counting on all these years. So the challenge is that it’s going to be harder. You used to be able to say to members–in a very transactional way. I wouldn’t recommend it, to say it this way. But you used to be able to say, well, if you just pay that extra 25 percent, you’ll be a full member, so it’s worth your while. But now it will be completely voluntary. Members will not have to pay any dues at all. So it’s a different relationship that they’re going to have with their unions. And so yes, the big unions are going to have to start thinking about how to [win] improvement so that members see the union as a vehicle for change in their lives. DESVARIEUX: Samantha, how have labor unions been affected in the 25 states that currently have right to work laws? WINSLOW: Well, their membership is much lower. They don’t have as much power. We can see in Wisconsin–and to clarify, in Wisconsin they took away many more rights other than the right to have a closed shop. They took away the right to deduct dues from a worker’s paycheck. They took away the right to bargain over basically everything other than wages capped to inflation. So virtually everything. But the AFSCME locals have gone down to, by 60 percent. Statewide education reports, lose I think about 30 percent of their membership. So these are very serious losses for unions, and they take away the resources that they have to fight for lots of things. But particularly, the conservatives, the Republicans that are waging these attacks, that’s money that could go to fund political elections and campaigns. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Just really quickly, Samantha, what’s your prediction for this case, based on precedent? What do you think? WINSLOW: Alito, who spoke, who wrote the majority opinion in Harris v Quinn said that he does not like the precedent. He is very willing to overturn fair share if given the opportunity with the right case. So I think that it’s not looking good for unions. DESVARIEUX; Okay. Samantha Winslow joining us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us. WINSLOW: Thank you. DESVARIEUX; And thank you for joining us on The Real Network.


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Samantha Winslow joined Labor Notes as a Staff Writer in November 2012. She was an organizer for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West in California and later for the breakaway National Union of Healthcare Workers. She covers teachers, public sector workers, and USW.