(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Months before the U.S. Supreme Court actually hears oral argument on a key labor-union case, nervous Democratic senators already are jawboning against the expected pro-worker result.
The case is Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In it, an Illinois state employee named Mark Janus contests the automatic withdrawal from his paycheck of dues for a union to which he does not belong, but which claims (in effect) to represent him via collective bargaining.
As Liberty Headlines reported in September, “Janus does not agree with the union’s bargaining position with regard to what at heart is a political dispute concerning how, and how much, Illinois pays its public employees. Presumably, he believes he can get a better deal under the policies pushed by Republican governor Bruce Rauner than under the one-size-fits-all system favored by the union bosses.”
When the Supreme Court considered a similar case in 2016 while the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia was vacant, the court split 4-4. Now that conservative Neil Gorsuch is on the court, many observers expect the justices to rule 5-4 in Janus’s favor.
Hence the panic among leading Democrats, who count on the muscle of union bosses to help further their liberal political aims. If workers can choose to de-fund the union bosses, most observers believe that Democratic Party organizational models will be weakened.
On Wednesday Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer unleashed a furious speech on the Senate floor, blasting the arguments of Janus and those representing the right to work without union interference.
Schumer complained that “over the past few decades, union membership has declined, and along with it, middle-class wages and opportunities. Since the 70s, when union membership was near 30 percent, it has fallen to just 11 percent of all workers in 2014.”
But rather than attribute that decline either to inadequate service by union bosses and/or to workers simply making their own choices about their employment representation, Schumer said: “That decline is mostly because the union movement, and concurrently the middle-class with which it is aligned, has been under attack from the big corporate special interests and the conservative movement for the better part the last three decades. It’s well-funded by a small group of very rich, and I might say greedy, people.”
Rather than allow the thought that Janus is exercising his right as an individual, Schumer finds (or invents) a scapegoat, in this case the famous libertarian industrialists and philanthropists, the Koch Brothers: “They’ll pursue any avenue to disrupt the ability for workers to organize and collectively bargain for a fair share of the profits they create so that they can make an extra buck. These forces will do whatever it takes to keep rigging the system in their favor.”
But Schumer was just getting started. In his speech, he outlined an entire series of pro-boss policies he and his Democratic allies intend to promote, to strengthen unions’ “collective” power while denying individual workers the ability to decide for themselves whether or not to opt in to the union political agenda. Top on his list is repealing “right to work” laws in the 28 states that boast such policies – policies that dare to allow workers to avoid joining a union with which they do not wish to affiliate.
Schumer also threatened to ratchet up the stakes: Rather than rely on less disruptive means of restoring union power, he wants to “strengthen workers’ right to strike,” thus seriously inconveniencing not just business owners but innocent customers throughout the economy.
Despite promising to take away workers’ individual freedom to negotiate their own work arrangements and give that power to the union bosses, Schumer entitles his initiative the “Our Better Deal, the Freedom to Negotiate.” (To which, workers might ask: “Whose freedom?”)
But Schumer wasn’t the only Democratic senator to inveigh, in advance, against the bosses’ potential loss at the Supreme Court. Uber-liberal Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren also attacked the Koch Brothers, who have helped finance right-to-work movements. Warren said that because Justice Gorsuch dared to make a speech to an unrelated civic-education group known as the Fund for American Studies, which has accepted some financing from the Koch Brothers, this somehow should illegitimatize Gorsuch for the Janus case.
Warren, not known for understatement, described the situation thusly: “Just as the ink was drying on the court’s announcement that it would hear Janus, Justice Gorsuch was off to hobnob with some of the biggest supporters for one side of this important case—the side that wants to deny workers the freedom to build a future that doesn’t hang by a thread at the whim of a few billionaires.”
Somehow, Gorsuch’s unpaid speech was portrayed by Warren as an “ethical conflict.”
Not even Warren, though, went as far as Jeff Merkley of Oregon. He questioned whether a 5-4 decision with Gorsuch in the majority should be seen as valid at all.
“Now, should we put an asterisk by Neil Gorsuch’s name? Should even a 5-4 decision with Gorsuch in the majority even carry weight here in our society?” Merkley asked.
He said that because Republicans (who claimed at least some precedent for not approving top judges in the final year of a president’s term) had kept the Scalia-vacated court seat open for a full year, the seat had been “stolen from one president and delivered to another.” Again, he said, it was all part of a conspiracy “to enable the 1 percent to rip off ordinary working Americans…. Now we know who is behind this strategy. It’s the Koch brothers through their organizations.”
Conservative policy experts, of course, say this is just fear-mongering. The current regime of forced union dues, argues staff attorney Mailee Smith of the Illinois Policy Institute, means that workers are told to “pay the union or lose your livelihood. It means anyone who wants to dedicate his or her life to being a teacher, child services worker or firefighter automatically loses constitutional rights [to freedom of association] enjoyed by others in American society.”
Union bosses, anticipating their loss, already are taking action. The final word here comes from Forbes magazine contributor George Leef:
It appears that some unions will resort to trickery to keep as many members and as much money as possible. Kim Crockett revealed in this Wall Street Journal article that the Minnesota affiliate of the National Education Association is prepared to distribute membership renewal cards for current members, which includes an authorization to deduct full dues in fine print. It reads:
“This authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on September 24 and ends on September 30.”
Thus, teachers who sign are stuck with paying for the union indefinitely, unless they submit the necessary withdrawal in that six-day window in September. That’s the kind of underhanded practice you expect from a fly-by-night business.