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Living with Janus, unions adapt

Demonstrators in New York City on June 27, 2018, protesting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Janus case. (Photo: Christopher Penler)

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s split decision dealing a significant blow to public unions, California union leaders remain optimistic about their ability to stay viable.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but people understand the value that the union brings to their lives and institutions,” said Matthew Hardy, a spokesperson for the California Federation of Teachers.

“We just need to continue hustling. It’s the right thing to do, whether we won or lost the Janus decision.” — Matthew Hardy

In the Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) decision on June 25, the nine-member high court stripped government unions’ ability to require workers who choose not to join unions to help pay for collective bargaining, now giving workers the choice on whether they support the union or not. The 5-4 decision found that public unions violated the First Amendment by compelling nonunion member workers to fund union activity.

With the decision, public-sector unions are anticipating increased difficulty in retaining union members — but trust that union members will realize what collective bargaining has done for their wages, benefits and job security.

“We just need to continue hustling. It’s the right thing to do, whether we won or lost the Janus decision. We’re going to continue to engage the members, organize and fight for our profession and schools,” Hardy said.

Supporters of the court’s decision disagreed, and conservative organizations immediately hailed the decision as a win for government employees.

“I think the Supreme Court is really playing with fire here, in the sense that they’re putting labor rights under attack in a way that hasn’t been done in almost a century now.” — John Vigna

“To the unions, its members’ dues are nothing but an ATM from which they can make unlimited withdrawals to support a radical left-wing agenda that all too often has nothing whatsoever to do with compensation, benefits or any other work-related consideration,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe in a statement.

Ted Toppin, the executive director for the Professional Engineers in California Government, argued in favor of union membership and has faith in the organization’s ability to retain members.

“You have to have collective action against employers, corporations, state governments and local governments,” Toppin said. “If you don’t have somebody defending you collectively and individually, you have little chance of getting a fair shake.”

John Vigna, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party, indicated that although the ruling is unfortunate for public unions, he expects an energetic reaction from the labor movement.

“I think the Supreme Court is really playing with fire here, in the sense that they’re putting labor rights under attack in a way that hasn’t been done in almost a century now,” Vigna said. “One of the things that has been historically true of the labor movement is that they tend to be at their best when their backs are against the wall.”

Vigna noted that the Janus ruling comes as no surprise to unions across California, which have been prepared for such a decision since President Donald Trump won the 2016 election, and even more so after the seat held by the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was filled with the more conservative Neil Gorsuch.

“As shocking as the decision itself is, this wasn’t a huge shock to [labor unions],” Vigna said. “They were all anticipating that this was going to happen. Most of the bigger unions have spent the last couple of years preparing for this.”

The Janus decision will have political implications beyond effects on public-sector unions. Vigna said the ruling will make it even more difficult for Democrats to raise money against their better-funded Republican counterparts.

The Janus decision nullifies laws in California and 22 other collective bargaining states and the District of Columbia. Prior to the decision, 28 states already banned agency fees.

“It’s going to be hard,” Vigna said. “Democrats have been very accustomed to going to organized labor, particularly public employee unions, for financial support. We’re going to have to branch out and start working on more small-dollar donations — sort of the Bernie Sanders approach. … Money is always going to be a challenge for those on the left, because, generally speaking, we’re not the billionaire class. It’s going to require some creativity and hard thinking about were going to stay financially afloat without the same level of support we’ve always gotten from unions whom themselves are now suddenly dealing with some very severe challenges financially.”

The Janus decision overruled the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which was brought forward by a Detroit public school teacher who opposed a local teachers union’s political proceedings. The court case held that nonunion member public-sector employees could be required to pay union fees as long as the funding went to collective bargaining and not political activities.

The Janus decision nullifies laws in California and 22 other collective bargaining states and the District of Columbia. Prior to the decision, 28 states already banned agency fees.

A series of studies from UC Berkeley titled The Union Effect in California found that “California workers increase their earnings by approximately $5,800 per worker annually.” One of the studies found that although all workers reap the benefits of being a union member, women, people of color and immigrants benefit the most.

A recent study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that “overturning Abood would shrink the economy and reduce public sector worker wages.” Public school teachers’ salaries, in particular, would drop by 5.4 percent on average, and public sector unionization in California would drop by approximately 189,000 members, the study found.

 


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