The Black Cat. Industrial Workers of the World symbol. Credited to Ralph Chaplin
Why Janus might actually be good for the American labor movement
The Supreme Court issued a decision last week that will have profound consequences for American working people. In Janus v. AFSCME, the court overturned a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that allowed public sector unions—like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—to charge government workers who refused to become members a “fair share” fee to defray the expense of representing them.
According to the Atlantic, “Until now, 22 states had in place a so-called ‘fair share’ provision, which required people represented by unions who did not choose to be members of these unions to pay fees to cover the cost of the unions’ collective bargaining activities. By contrast, 28 states were so-called ‘right-to-work’ states, and barred employers from including ‘fair share’ requirements in employment contracts.”
Private sector unions—although most large unions these days like Service Employees International Union represent both private and public sector workers—are also not allowed to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees in right-to-work states. The thing that makes this ruling so pernicious is that it expands that right-to-work mandate to cover public sector unions nationwide.
The understandable view of the majority of labor supporters is that Janus is a disaster for American unionism. Bankrolled by a rogues’ gallery of right-wing donors, its passage virtually guaranteed by the replacement of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative, Neil Gorsuch, the decision is certainly going to have a negative impact on public sector unions. Which comprise the largest wing of the US labor movement of 2018. Private sector unions having already been beaten back by endless attacks from corporations over the last 50 years.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate of public sector workers (34.4 percent) continued to be more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent) in 2017. With only 10.7 percent of American jobs unionized overall, and public sector union members outnumbering private sector union members since 2009.
This low “union density” rate is no accident, as big business wants to eliminate unions as an impediment to their endless drive for profit. Since unions have the strongest track record of any institution in our society of keeping the pressure on employers and government for higher wages, better benefits, and more spending on government programs that benefit working families. Just the sorts of things that lower corporate profits.
But public sector unions have been better protected than private sector unions—organizing jobs that are generally directly funded by government at all levels. This has made them a primary target of the right wing—for whom giving unionized government workers a better deal over decades is tantamount to using public funds to expand the government.
Also, public sector unions—like most other unions—provide tens of millions of dollars to the Democrats every election cycle, and most of the ground troops the Dems need to run successful election campaigns in many districts.
For those reasons, right-wing strategists have been looking for ways to get rid of public sector unions since they rose to prominence in the mid-20th century. Even more than the private sector unions they’ve had an easier time busting. And Janus moved them a long way toward that goal by cutting into union bottom lines.
How? Fair share fees add up. Eliminating them for public sector unions nationwide will cut millions of dollars from their budgets. Effectively slashing the amount of money they can spend on organizing new workers and plumping up Democratic Party coffers. Even though the Aboud decision dictated that fair share fees could only be spent on “collective bargaining” costs—basically, providing nonunion government workers the same services provided to union members—not on political activity.
No surprise, then, that many union leaders and boosters think this is the worst anti-labor decision by the court in decades.
However, there’s a minority view on the left wing of labor—where I have always situated myself as a longtime union member and activist—that says that the Janus decision may actually save American unions. Why? Two reasons.
First, because the more money that American unions have raised from members and nonmembers alike, the more they have tended to bureaucratize. And become top-heavy with high-paid staffers and elected officials that have become culturally distant from those same members.
Because union leaders making secure six-figure salaries with generous benefits have very little in common with members making typical union wages. They are also more likely to be college educated than union members are. A phenomenon that’s been growing (ironically) since the radical campus movements of the 1960s produced a generation of student activists who entered union jobs—and staff positions— in an effort to push them to the left politically. After the communists, socialists, and anarchists who actually built many unions through titanic workplaces struggles between the turn of the last century and the 1940s were pushed out of them during the anti-left “witch hunts” of the McCarthy Era.
Today’s union leaders therefore are not like the leaders of those earlier struggles. They’re often more comfortable with the college-educated corporate and government leadership sitting across from them at the bargaining table than they are with their own members. And they’ve tended to replace militant grassroots organizing on behalf of the entire working class with narrow bargaining for minor contractual gains for the shrinking number of members they represent. Such leaders make tough-sounding noises when it’s time to get a new contract with an employer or during big election campaigns. Yet they’re actually quite timid compared to their predecessors—who were often on the front lines of literal street battles with police and the National Guard or in jail on trumped-up charges when union activity was deemed illegal by courts stacked with pro-corporate elites.
Second, as this timidity in an era of renewed vicious corporate assaults against labor has contributed to declining union membership rolls as a percentage of the growing population, union leaders have turned to spending larger and larger sums of money on the Democratic Party. In a mostly vain attempt to purchase political clout they no longer have in the streets or at the ballot box. Even as the Democrats have moved steadily to the right since the 1970s, and become more and more beholden to corporations. Which still makes the Republican hard right angry enough to fight for court decisions like Janus, since the now slavishly pro-corporate Democrats are insufficiently capitalist by their lights. And, more to the point, since the Republicans have a strong desire to rule—a “will to power,” one might say—and any force that opposes them is an enemy that must be defeated. An attitude that hapless Dem leaders have definitely adopted to anyone to their left, including the social democratic pro-union left of their own party. But have failed to adopt to the Repubs and the outright fascists on their right.
So, Janus might be just what’s needed to cause a rebirth of the labor movement. It eliminates a big chunk of the money that union leaders have to spend on the Democrats—who have done little more than take that money and spit on union workers since the neoliberals of the Clinton administration took over party leadership.
It also will force the unions to cut staff. Including top staff. Which will definitely dump good leaders as well as bad ones, and that’s a drag. But it might very well help with the other big problem American unions have—a lack of internal democracy. Like other bureaucracies, too many unions have come to vest too much power in their top echelons. And leave their members out in the cold. Which is another factor that has led to union leaders making bad political decisions. Like backing pro-corporate Hillary Clinton over pro-labor Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Budget cuts caused by Janus could cause more power to be vested in union memberships’ hands. Leading to more victories like the one won recently by unionized teachers in West Virginia—who organized massive wildcat strikes over the protests of their own leadership. And won big while lighting a fire that has spread to teachers in other “red” states like Oklahoma and Arizona. States that are, among other bad things, right-to-work states.
However things play out, moribund American union leadership has been in need of a wakeup call for decades. And if Janus is what it takes to shake them out of their torpor, then so be it.
In any case, as storied labor martyr Joe Hill once said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” But don’t expect to win gains in the workplace and at the ballot box without a real fight—and without unions controlled by their members top to bottom.