The right’s attack on US government unions


In his quest to become the biggest union buster in the United States, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who ended collective bargaining rights for the state’s government workers in 2011, signed new “right-to-work” legislation into law on Monday.

There are serious concerns this might be the new standard all government workers will have to work under – which is why a case currently before the United States Supreme Court has American public sector unions feeling nervous.

Friedrichs v California Teachers Association could cripple union finances by imposing a right-to-work status on all government unions.

At present, in most states where a public sector union has exclusive representation of workers in a particularly agency or workplace, that union collects dues from both workers who formerly join as members, and those who don’t (so-called agency shop payers) because even though they aren’t members they are still covered by union negotiated wages and benefits.

Right-to-work status would prevent unions from collecting these agency shop fees. This would not only slash unions’ revenues but it would also serve to discourage workers from joining a union, since they won’t be mandated to pay.

Conservative lawmakers have instituted right-to-work laws for the private sector in many different states, including the auto worker union stronghold of Michigan.

The case, brought by the Center for Individual Rights, seeks to build on last year’s high court ruling in the case of Harris v. Quinn, which imposed this status on a narrow sector of workers, argues that it violates a worker’s First Amendment freedoms to have to pay into a group that promotes certain political stances.

Union activists are fearful that the lawyers have crafted an argument that would inspire the conservative majority of judges to rule against labour.

Eric Fink, a labour attorney and professor at Elon University in North Carolina, is slightly optimistic that the court won’t issue a death blow for unions.

“Under existing law, unions are already prohibited from using ‘fair share’ fees for political activity, and the court has consistently held that the First Amendment doesn’t preclude a requirement that the beneficiaries of the union’s legally-imposed duty to represent all bargaining unit members contribute to the cost of that representation,” he said.

“This case doesn’t really raise any new argument.”

He added that imposing such a sweeping ban on collected agency fees would entail overturning a 40-year-old court precedent, something even some of the conservative justices might not be inclined to do.


“A tough pitch”

But others see it as an attack on the public sector coming from the right, and outside the labour movement it’s hard to see support for legal protections for government sector workers who often have better benefits and job security than even unionised workers in the private sector.

“My view [is that] even though public sector unionism is clearly a good thing and people do have rights, the case for it isn’t really as strong, because in private sector you’re dealing with profit making corporations, so every dollar you take from the corporation, some part of it is coming out of profits,” said James Pope, a labour law professor at Rutgers University.

“In the public sector you’re taking tax money, and that’s a tougher pitch.”

The right has certainly seized on that vulnerability.

Four years ago, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is likely to seek the Republican nomination for president next year, achieved the previously unthinkable notion of stripping government workers in his state of the right to collectively bargain.

This year, in union-strong Illinois, the Republican governor Bruce Rauner has attempted to impose right-to-work on the public sector in his state, although he has hit legal roadblocks in imposing this unilaterally rather than through the courts or the legislature.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, told Equal Times:

“Collective bargaining is the vehicle that allows us to champion, engage and embed fairness, democracy and opportunity in the workplace. It allows us to advance solutions to create and maintain high-quality public education, healthcare and public services and to unite those we represent and those we serve. Those promoting the Friedrichs case and the other attacks on unions want the opposite. Their ideological agenda is to silence workers and undermine public institutions, and their tool is to eviscerate their unions. They realise that when workers are united, their collective voice is powerful, so they are mounting a coordinated attack to try to disable that.”

The reason for this assault is two-fold. On the one hand, private sector union membership in the United States has plummeted since the 1970s. Public sector unions, with workers that are impossible to offshore, have remained the strongest pillar of the labour movement, and thus weakening it would lead to the eventual imposition on American labour’s political and economic power.

As Fink pointed out, such a conservative ruling could upend the entire industrial labour relations structure in the United States.

“Requiring unions to represent non-members, while prohibiting agency fees to cover the cost of that representation, amounts to an unconditional taking of union property without compensation. So this could end up undoing the current system in a fundamental way.”

But it’s also an attack on government services, a way of imposing austerity.

Public sector unions are the most organised and best financed political groups pressuring for more investment in public services and against the privatisation of government offices.

Weakening these unions as advocates for investment in services for citizens makes it easier to downsize governments and sell public assets to private interests.

Clark University industrial relations professor Gary Chaison believes that such a ruling would most adversely affect teachers unions, where members tend to exert more individualistic attitudes about their profession, and unions with members at the lower end of the pay scale, because forgoing union dues makes for a more substantive increase in one’s take-home pay.

The fact that this case has even made it to the Supreme Court, for Chaison, sends a chilling message about the state of these labour groups.

“It’s an indication of the decline of the influence of public sector unions,” he said.