Photo: Faculty Association

Photo: Faculty Association

The Janus case now before the U.S. Supreme Court is one more attack on workers’ right to organize and form unions. It challenges the 45 year-old precedent that trade unions have the right to collect “agency fees” from non-members for whom the union bargains and fights. The suit claims that for non-union members to have to pay unions to represent them is a violation of free speech. The case was presented to the Court on Feb. 26 and a decision is expected in June.

Janus v. AFSCME could overturn a 1977 decision that enabled public sector unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), to collect dues from non-members who benefit from union contracts. The suit is aimed at municipal unions, where union strength lies today. Nearly one-half of the over 14 million public sector workers are represented by unions.  This case, however, could set a precedent to be used against all unions.

The Janus suit is nothing but an attempt to de-fund unions in the false name of “freedom.” When working people are “free” from unions they are “free” to have lower wages, less benefits, an insecure retirement and no voice whatsoever in the workplace. Union workers overall make 15-30 percent more pay than non-union workers.

It is easy to see why Corporate America supports Janus. In fact, rightwing groups are openly funding the suit.

Thousands of union members demonstrate

In response, the AFL-CIO called a “Working Peoples Day of Action” on Feb. 24  and organized  protests in over 30 cities. For example, over 5,000 attended a rally in Foley Square in New York City,  and 3,000 in Chicago. Many unions participated. The diversity of the union movement was on proud display in the spirited rally here in New York City. Among the speakers, however, were the mayor and governor, no real friends of labor. Politicians like New York State Governor Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, always speak to, but never listen to, working people.

This action was just the tip of the iceberg of a developing worker resistance to the unrelenting attacks on union rights and workers’ lives, such as the movement for $15 wage and the heroic West Virginia teachers’ strike.

Union membership has been declining for many years, which parallels the general decline in wages and benefits for all workers. Union contracts form a wage base that influences pay scales across the board for every worker.

The rich admit plans to defund unions

The super-rich want no unions at all. They give hundreds of millions of contributions to “defund and defang” the union movement, as explained by the Koch family foundation.

Nothing inspires the billionaires more than the chance to fight for “freedom” for working people. Freedom from health care, “right-to-work” laws, freedom from “union tyranny” and so on. It is the vision of the isolated worker standing alone against the might of Wall St. and corporate power that inspires them to fund anti-union organizations like the National Right to Work Foundation, the Freedom Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Liberty Justice Center and, can you believe it, Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking (!) and others providing the financial backing for the Janus case.

A naïve worker might actually think that the “National Right to Work Committee” has something to do with the right to work, rather than being an anti-union foundation. Then there’s the Freedom Foundation, whose stated agenda is to “reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government.” When has that ever happened? These tools of the super-rich live on lies and fraud.

The organizing effort by the AFL-CIO is a very welcome step in the right direction to reverse the anti-union tide. But so much more is needed.  Every worker, every union steward, every organizer needs to find the hidden history of the working-class movement that built their unions in the first place.

The right to form unions, the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining, was not won by electing “pro-labor” candidates, but in struggle.   Every union was born in struggle

In the early 1930s, for example, US Steel bragged that they would “never submit” to union organizing, and they hired legions of goons to back them up. However, after the wave of sit-down strikes swept the country a few years later, US Steel signed its first ever contract in 1937 with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

The Wagner Act, which made unions and strikes “legal,” was won in the midst of these powerful strikes and the sit-down movement of the 1930s. These rights, which had been illegal until then, have been under attack ever since.

The lessons of the past have not been lost on the super-rich. Before the struggles of the 1930s, labor suffered many bitter defeats. The powers that be thought they had it all figured out when they automated the assembly line. They thought workers could so easily be replaced that there could never be a union. They were proven wrong in the sit-down movement in auto and other shops across the country. Class struggles such as the West Virginia teachers’ struggle will prove them wrong again.