On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt the biggest blow to organized labor of the 21st century. In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of corporate interests and the anti-union front groups they funnel money into. Although Mark Janus became the face of Janus v AFSCME, in reality, Janus and his two co-defendants are simply patsies for corporate front groups like Center for Individual Rights (CIR) and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Along with many other foundations and shell organizations, both of these “nonprofits” have poured an endless stream of money into legal cases manufactured to smash workers’ rights and dismantle unions.
So what is the legal premise for Janus v. AFSCME and how is this case situated in the historic attack on public sector unions specifically, and unions more generally? First, It is important to understand that the Janus v AFSCME case, and its predecessor, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, are not grassroots movements led by workers who disagree with the concept of unions. They are in fact well-funded fronts by corporate entities to destroy what is left of organized worker power in the U.S. Secondly, the hollow argument that unions infringe on workers 1st amendment rights is a complete farce. Unions have always served as the premier mechanism for workplace democracy in capitalist countries and have continuously protected workers from the wrath of malicious bosses and reactionary governments.
Prior to the Janus decision, in the 24 states without right-to-work legislation, workers represented by unions who did not want to be members were expected to pay “agency fees.” These fees were in place to ensure that everyone benefiting from the union contract paid their fair share for the costs of representation. However, agency fee payments did not go towards any of the union’s political activity. The basic argument the Janus legal team concocted is that since Mark Janus is a public sector employee all of the benefits and protections his union negotiates are political since they are tied to city, state, and federal budgets. The Supreme Court’s ruling essentially extends right-to-work legislation for public-sector unions nationwide.
Taft Hartley and “Right to Work”
Before the Janus decision, over half of the country already implemented right to work legislation. Despite the coy phraseology, “right to work” does not guarantee everyone with the right to a job. In fact, it eviscerates labor unions and worker protections.
It is necessary to trace the origins of how states gained access to implementing right-to-work laws because it is directly linked with today’s Supreme Court decision. Although there was no shortage of violent union-busting throughout the 20th century in the U.S, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act pushed through the largest rollback of worker power in U.S. history. The Act dismantled some of the rights workers fought hardest to win during the massive labor struggles throughout the first 4 decades of the 20th century. In response to 5 million workers engaging in strike activity in 1946, the year after the end of World War II, the ruling class eagerly passed this legislation, overriding a Presidential veto to do so.
Among the countless anti-worker precedents it established, Taft-Hartley made it legal for states to ban unions from negotiating union security clauses. Robbing unions of this right opened up the floodgates to right-to-work legislation. Unions negotiated union security clauses to ensure every member who benefited from a union contract paid their fair share for representation. But with the elimination of union security clauses, a number of states (many in the South) sprinted to pass right-to-work legislation. Allowing workers to become “free riders”– workers who benefit from union contracts but do not have to pay anything for their benefits — within unions eliminated large swaths of union revenue. This weakened unions ability to bargain strong contracts and encouraged bosses to utilize even more brutal anti-union tactics.
Taft-Hartley and right-to-work hurt the labor movement nationwide. Without the Taft-Hartley Act, many key union rights would not have been gutted and right-to-work would not be a legal possibility to begin with.
The decades-long war on public sector unions
The Janus case is essentially the sequel to an almost identical Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v California Teachers Association. In both cases, public sector workers claimed that paying agency fees infringed on their first amendment rights to free speech and free association. However, due to the timely death of Antonin Scalia, the Friedrichs decision ended in a 4-4 stalemate.
In truth, Friedrichs and Janus were both attempts to overturn the 1977 Supreme Court Case Abood v Detroit Board of Education. In Abood, the Supreme Court unanimously found that public-sector unions are entitled to maintain “union shops” which mandate that all employees protected by a union contract must pay union dues like their private-sector counterparts. If public-sector employees who enjoy union representation did not want to be union members they were required to pay “agency fees.” The Supreme Court, however, did not rule in favor of labor because it was tripping over itself to maintain hard-fought union rights. Rather, it was because union power in the 70s, specifically teacher unions, was at one of its highest points in modern history, forcing the ruling class to concede.
Today, because unions have lost so much of their power, the ruling class can easily force through anti-worker decisions and legislation under the cloak of free speech. We know however that the only freedom the corporate class is interested in is the freedom to fatten their already overflowing pockets and drive their dagger even deeper into working-class power. Successfully extending right-to-work for public sector unions across the entire country has the potential to totally eviscerate union coffers. Inevitably, these same corporate-funded anti-union front groups will throw even larger piles of cash into indoctrinating unionized workers with anti-union propaganda. The more union members that opt-out of union membership and stop paying dues the less money unions will have, producing weaker contracts. This, of course, will result in more members wanting to opt-out of membership-and so the cycle will continue. Or so the ruling class hopes.
Drawing on the history of militant public sector unions
It is of major importance to note that for the majority of their existence public-sector workers have not enjoyed legal rights to form unions or collectively bargain. Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s did public-sector unions start to receive legally binding collective bargaining rights. Up until that point, the National Labor Relations Act, which was, in fact, a piece of legislation instituted to quell militant worker power not to protect the gains workers had made through intense struggle, only applied to private sector workers. This lack of legal protections, however, did not bar public sector workers from organizing militant unions. In 1889, letter carriers established the first postal union. The American Federation of Teachers formed in 1918, the same year that several independent unions of firefighters merged to form a national union. In 1932, AFSCME was born in Wisconsin, and the American Federation of Government Employees formed the same year. In the 90-year span of 1830-1940 alone, there were over 1,000 governmental worker strikes in the United States. And just months ago, teachers across the nation went on strike and organized walkouts, demonstrating the power public sector workers have even when they don’t have collective bargaining rights!
Working-class history tells us that when workers come together to fight back against corporate attacks we win! The legal protections the ruling class was forced to concede in order to maintain labor peace are not the decisive factor in determining unions’ success. The bedrock of union power will always remain the strength of workers’ collective action.
What is different about today is how far many unions have gone in capitulation to the Democratic Party. The shift from militant rank and file unionism to political lobbying has pacified unionized workers and alienated them from the larger movement they are a part of. If unions do not heed the wakeup call the Janus decision has inflicted, the beginning of the end for organized labor as we know it is indeed possible. It is up to workers and unionists on the ground to bring back rank-and-file militancy and to start taking back power from labor leaders that too often mirror the corporate lackeys they claim to be fighting.
Public sector workers are crucial to society. They do the countless jobs that make our cities, towns, and country operate day to day. To be sure, the Janus decision’s disastrous effects will be twofold. One will be the liquidation of union members from their unions. The second will be an exponential increase of privatization and outsourcing of essential public services. This double-pronged corporate attack will intensify the assault on the working class even further, and with the aftermath of Janus now looming unions will have a far more difficult time fighting back against this heightened assault.
In a country where laws and the state benefit the ruling class, it is no surprise that Janus and his corporate backers won. This is why we need to fight for socialism. Under a capitalist society, the laws of the land remain in the interests of the capitalist class. It is not until the working-class runs the totality of society that laws will reflect the interests of workers and secure full workplace democracy once and for all.