by Ralph Seliger
photo credit: AFSCME Council 31
A CASE now in consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court threatens to undermine the right of public employees to be represented in collective bargaining. Officially known as Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31, the case takes the form of a lawsuit brought by an Illinois state employee named Mark Janus, who objects to the requirement to pay his “fair share” fee to the union that negotiates his contract with the State.
Under current law, unions have the right to collect a minimum fee, representing a fair share from all the workers it represents in collective bargaining. No worker is required to be a member of the union, however, or pay full union dues. The calculation of the fair share fee is based on only those union expenses associated with negotiating a contract on behalf of all workers, members and non-members alike; it excludes any expenditures related to political action or other costs not involving collective bargaining.
In this lawsuit, Mr. Janus claims that the fair share fee infringes upon his First Amendment rights to free speech and political expression, even though he is not being compelled to join the union or pay full union dues.
In actuality, this one public employee is providing legal standing for the real forces at work in this case: a network of big-moneyed corporate interests and anti-union activists, represented in the so-called National Right to Work Foundation, which is funding Janus’s lawsuit. (In These Times has published a useful analysis in its March print issue and on its website, “Behind Janus: Documents Reveal Decade-Long Plot to Kill Public-Sector Unions.”)
If the Supreme Court rules in his — and their — favor, AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), and the labor movement as a whole, would face a massive threat to their finances. This would likely cripple their ability to operate effectively on behalf of workers, and undermine the very viability of collective bargaining as a tool that enables workers to maintain decent wages and benefits. In addition, the forces behind Janus would benefit by weakening the Democratic Party, as major pubic-sector unions like AFSCME and the teachers’ unions would be diminished and hard-pressed to contribute anything substantial to pro-labor candidates running for office.
Finally, this case should remind us how much the results of elections matter, as Trump’s staunchly conservative appointee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, now sits in the seat that would have been filled by Hillary Clinton (and should have been filled by Barack Obama) with either a moderate or liberal nominee. Barring an unexpected turn, Gorsuch will likely cast the deciding vote against the labor movement and the interests of working people across this country.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued as a print publication, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.