By Mark Gruenberg
For workers and their allies, especially union workers, it’s time to get ready to combat a looming disaster, coming to us courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s because it’s apparent, from the Jan. 11 oral arguments of the justices, that the Republican-named five-man court majority is ready, willing and able to throw out “agency fees” that non-union-member public workers now pay in unionized state and local government agencies, The fees help fund union services all workers those contracts cover benefit from: Negotiations and defense of the workers’ rights.
At least 1 million workers nationwide are so-called “free riders”: Non-unionists in the public and the private sectors who are in union shops, whom unions legally must represent, but who don’t pay for unions’ services. But that group is the tip of the “free rider” iceberg.
Because the justices’ comments make clear that the majority thinks every public worker should be a “free rider.”
In 20 or so states, notably California, which is where the Supreme Court case came from, those public union free riders must pay lesser “agency fees” just to cover the costs of contracts, grievances and arbitration – and not politics or lobbying or anything else.
The majority justices made clear in their comments that state laws ordering such agency fee payments by any – we repeat, any – public worker is an unconstitutional infringement on the worker’s First Amendment right of free speech.
In other words, the majority seems ready to decide that every state and local government worker, from a janitor to an administrative law judge, from a librarian to a social worker to a state safety and health investigator, can be a free rider.
And when you can get something for nothing, why pay for it?
The result of the looming decision, in the Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association et al case, would be massive defections of dues-paying members from public worker unions.
And since public agencies – federal, state and local – are 37 percent unionized, compared to 7 percent in the private sector, their memberships, dues and ability to protect you and me would drastically drop.
Nobody knows exactly when the justices will lower the boom. But by the end of June, they will. That’s why unions and workers must start preparing now for the disaster, if they haven’t started already.
Public worker unions must find new ways to convince current members to pay dues, even when they don’t have to do so. That will mean diverting more money, and people, at a time of shrinking revenue, into re-organizing their own members.
And private-sector unions will have to step into the gap. In many cases, either a “private sector” union, such as the Communications Workers, or a “public sector” union, such as AFSCME, organizes a specific group of state and local government workers. With “AFSCMEs” having to concentrate on re-organizing their own members, the “Communications Workers” will have to increase their organizing of other unorganized public workers – who, remember, will not be required to pay one penny for the union’s services, thanks to the Supreme Court.
So that also means the “Communications Workers” unions will have to redouble their efforts to increase the union share in the private sector, union shop or no union shop, to offset the dollar drain from the lack of dues or agency fees, thanks to the court.
See what we mean by getting ready to combat a disaster?
Doing so is important for all workers, union and non-union. Union workers enjoy a $200 weekly advantage in wages and enormous edges in benefits (health care, pensions) over their non-union colleagues. And if union density is high enough, non-union firms in metro areas, states, cities or economic sectors must match the unions’ advantage, at least in pay.
We remember an example of such matching, in Chicago, in the 1960s, with four newspapers. The two east of Michigan Avenue were non-union, the two west of it were union. And the two east of the avenue, including the notorious Tribune, had to match the pay scales of the two west of the avenue, otherwise their workers would walk across the street.
It’s such matching that lifts all workers up. Anything that cuts it down hurts all workers.
And that’s why the looming High Court ruling is a disaster, not just for unionists, but for all workers. Because it not only cuts unions’ money, but it cuts their potential to help everyone.