Labor's fight-or-die moment

Sherry Wolf, lead organizer for the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) at Rutgers University, explains the stakes in the legal challenge to public-sector unionism--and what labor can do to confront the assault.

California Teachers Association member Maya Walker speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court building (Patrick G. Ryan | NEA)California Teachers Association member Maya Walker speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court building (Patrick G. Ryan | NEA)

THERE CAN be no minimizing the threat to public-sector unions posed by Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association--the court case that the U.S. Supreme Court justices took up last week with oral arguments, and will rule on by the end of June.

At its core, Friedrichs is about smashing the power of the last well-organized section of U.S. labor. The Court is almost certainly going to strike down or drastically alter the right of all public-sector unions to continue collecting "fair share" or agency fees from workers who are covered under union contracts, but have not formally joined the union.

The plaintiffs in this case--a handful of California teachers, backed by billionaires and right-wing corporate concerns, led by the Center for Individual Rights--claim they are being forced to pay for political activities and speech with which they do not agree.

None of them seem to have yet complained that the average annual earnings for a unionized worker in 2014 were $49,000 compared to $38,600 for a comparable non-union worker--a 27 percent difference on average that fattened the plaintiffs' paychecks over the years.

The deep pockets behind Friedrichs contend that all bargaining, organizing, communications and legal activities that unions carry out are inherently political. By law, unions' legislative activities are already paid for separately from dues. But according to the anti-labor ideologues, requiring representation fees compels workers to pay for political speech that they don't agree with, supposedly in violation of their First Amendment rights.

This argument was designed to appeal to the majority of Supreme Court justices who have made it clear that they consider money to be a form of speech. Remember their Citizens United decision in 2010, where the justices decided that corporations would have the unfettered ability to fund political campaigns--because campaign reform laws capping contributions "silenced" their freedom of speech?

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IF THE Court rules against labor, as virtually everyone familiar with this case expects, 1.6 million workers could become "free riders," who pay nothing to support their union's bargaining and other activities, despite their union's legal responsibility to represent nonmembers--at least for now. This would sap resources from even the healthiest union locals--and most locals are not that healthy.

An anti-union decision in Friedrichs would have a disproportionate impact on Black workers, more than 13 percent of whom are unionized, compared with 10.8 percent of white workers, 9.2 percent of Latino workers and 10.4 percent of Asian workers.

It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to further conclude that the Koch brothers and their ilk will waste no time in launching a national campaign appealing to union members to "give yourself a raise"--enticing them to stop paying union dues since they would no longer have to pay a cent.

This is precisely what happened in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker pushed through anti-labor legislation--in arrogant defiance of mass protests, including a weeks-long occupation of the state Capitol building in early 2011 that stopped Walker's union-busting agenda for a time. Since the laws came into effect, tens of thousands of members have dropped out of AFSCME, one of the main public-sector unions in the country.

The onslaught in Wisconsin led to a wave of anti-union laws in what were once labor strongholds--like Michigan, where, in the aftermath of the passage of misnamed "right to work" legislation, union density fell from 16.3 percent to 14.5 percent in 2014, and is set to drop further once previously negotiated contracts expire.

A 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute explains what's at stake for all workers as we face the prospect of all 50 states essentially becoming "right to work":

At their core, right to work (RTW) laws seek to hamstring unions' ability to help employees bargain with their employers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Given that unionization raises wages both for individual union members as well as for nonunion workers in unionized sectors, it is not surprising that research shows that both union and nonunion workers in RTW states have lower wages and fewer benefits, on average, than comparable workers in other states.

In other words, what may initially appear to be a minor blow to some unions could eventually become lethal for the nation's union movement.

More than 16 million wage and salary workers are covered under union contracts in this country. That includes 35.7 percent of all public-sector workers--six times that of unionized workers in the private sector.

Make no mistake: the U.S. ruling class--including their bought and paid for representatives who lead both the Democratic and Republican Parties--knows precisely what it has set in motion here. They have made a conscious decision to try to gut the last bastion of collective resistance to corporatization, austerity and inequality that ordinary people have.

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LABOR DOESN'T have to go down this way, even if the Court does reverse its 1977 decision in the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case that established the constitutionality of "fair share" fees in the first place.

If the membership mobilization campaigns that many unions are currently engaged in to prepare for Friedrichs are to have a lasting impact, unions must become member-led and issue-driven to remain relevant and to inspire the activism that originally built the unions. Unions must get back to their fighting roots and reflect the concerns and priorities of their members--and the communities that public-sector workers serve, even if those are not always issues over which unions can legally bargain.

That was precisely the approach that catapulted the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to the forefront of the labor movement.

Despite the fact that the CTU was constrained by law about what it could legally bargain over when more than 25,000 teachers struck in 2012, the union became a champion for the majority of the city's parents and students by agitating over larger social justice issues, such as opposing school closings in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Now, the CTU faces another potential strike this year, and the same issues are at stake.

Challenging austerity in the face of mammoth profits; aligning with developing anti-racist struggles; and planning for job actions, including strikes, which was how public-sector unionism was born in the 1960s and early 1970s--these must all be on the agenda of every union that hopes to survive and even thrive in a post-Friedrichs world.

Currently, though, it seems that panic and denial are dominant in top union circles. Panic in the form of frenzied efforts to sign up as many members as possible before Friedrichs is decided may be better than denying the freight train that is headed labor's way. But this won't necessarily be effective at building membership confidence and leadership.

Membership drives must center around identifying workplace leaders and training them to be stewards. Unions that aim to survive and be effective can no longer operate as if they were insurance agencies, collecting fees for services that union staffers, to a greater or lesser degree, provided.

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WORKERS CAN be convinced, if they aren't already, about what's at stake for their wages and working conditions--but only if unions make a robust, compelling and repeated case for what has been gained by public-sector unions, and what workers could lose if they are forced to operate under the conditions that the right wants to force on them.

Given the stakes, it should be impossible to turn on the TV, go on Facebook, attend a professional sports competition or drop off the kids at school without seeing and hearing pro-union propaganda. The unions do have the financial resources to launch this kind of information blitz.

Yet there is nothing like this on the national scene. Instead, most national union leaders are more focused on the 2016 presidential campaign--despite the fact that seven years into Barack Obama's administration, the labor movement has little to nothing to show for its hundreds of millions of dollars of support.

The AFT's early endorsement of the unabashedly pro-corporate Hillary Clinton, which provoked disgust in many educator circles, shows just how removed some union leaders remain from the lived reality of their members.

Friedrichs is likely to be the death of the service model of unionism. Whether the Court's decision rouses a sufficient number of workers and organizers in enough unions to take the kinds of actions that will inspire others to fight instead remains to be seen. The fact that this case is playing out at a time when 58 percent of Americans polled say they would like to have a union, but less than 12 percent of workers actually are unionized, implies that a strong case in favor of unions would be received well in many workplaces.

If unions weren't effective at advancing workers' interests, billionaires wouldn't be moving heaven and earth to destroy them. In other words, labor unions--withered as they are after decades of the neoliberal, pro-corporate attack--are still the greatest defense workers have against capital.

In the most literal sense of the term, this is an existential crisis for labor. The very nature and importance of unions are being thrown into question. If unions don't fight, they'll die.