The wailing you hear from public sector unions and from trade unions in general in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Wednesday Janus decision banning the mandatory payment of fees to unions by workers who choose not to join them in the public sector is overwrought. In many states with strong public sector unions, this has been the case long before this ruling came down.
It’s also the way things have long been for unions in the private sector, as “open-shop” rules, called “right-to-work” rules by their advocates, have become increasingly popular with state legislatures. Nevada, for example, has had an “open-shop” or “right-to-work” law on the books since 1952 and unions remain strong and common in that state.
It is certainly true that having an “open-shop” rule banning contracts that require all employees to join the union once one is formed at a company, or in the case of public sector unions, at some government or university workplace, can make organizing new workers harder, and can put a financial strain on unions which also by law have to represent all workers, for example those who have a grievance with the employer, whether or not they are full dues-paying members.
But there is a downside too to the once wide-spread practice of negotiating contracts requiring all member in a unionized workplace to join the union, or to pay some kind of agency fee to the union in lieu of dues in the case of workers who simply don’t want to be union members. That downside is that it encouraged a shift during the last half century or more away from unions as part of a vast political movement of workers to a kind of business-unionism featuring well-compensated executives and staff, costly office buildings, and expensive annual conferences held in places like Orlando or New Orleans or Las Vegas — generally all-expenses-paid for those attending as representatives of their locals.
One big problem is that if it has a closed shop at a workplace, the union doesn’t have to go to work to organize those workers who don’t want to join. It has their money, and all too often, that’s all union leaders care about since it pays their salaries and perks. But a union that only has 50-60% of a workforce as willing dues-paying members is not a strong union. It can’t count on the other 40-50 percent of non-willing members to support a strike, for instance. Far better to work and earn the support of those members than to just compel them to pay dues or agency fees and remain disgruntled about the union.
Such business unions then often have also lost their democratic roots, and have become sinecures for comfortable union leaders, who lost any visceral connection to the membership, live in better houses in better neighbors than their members, send their kids to better schools and to private colleges, and in general are in a different class than their members.
By undermining the ability of unions to collect that much revenue from members and non-members at workplaces, Justice Sam Alito, who wrote the Janus opinion for the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, and the right-wing movement to attack unions whose attorneys supported this case, may have actually done the slowly vanishing US labor movement, such as it is, a favor with this swift kick in the head.
Unions, which back in 1954 represented 35% of all workers in the United States, today represent only 10.7 percent of workers. In the private sector, the number is a truly pathetic 6.5 percent (and it’s still falling), while in the much smaller public sector, it is 34.4 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
No wonder things have been getting harder for unions and for workers in general, with legislatures ignoring or even attacking them with, for example, so-called “right-to-work” laws, anti-worker measures like more restrictive unemployment benefits, frozen minimum wages that have long ago stopped being adjusted to account for inflation, etc.
No wonder the Democratic Party, once solidly pro-union, has long-since ceased being a party of labor, turning instead into an openly pro-business party like the Republicans. President Obama, for example, while running for office in 2008, posed as a pro-union candidate, claiming that he would be out on the picket line with striking workers as president, and specifically vowing to support a “card check” union organizing law as one of his first acts if elected. Such a law would have made it so workers could win representation at a workplace by simply obtaining union cards from a majority of the workers, instead of requiring a secret ballot election, with alll the legal delays that employers typically throw up in the way of such a process, allowing them to, in the mean time, harass and fire union activists and their supporters. Once elected though, Obama dropped that promise, and never even attempted to get “card check” passed by Congress through his entire two terms, even though he had big majorities in both houses of Congress.
It just wasn’t a big issue for him, or for the Democrats controlling House and Senate, even though it is critically important to embattled unions.
Democrats, while still needing unions and their money to get elected, long ago discovered that they could stiff what was left of the labor movement, just like they could stiff minorities, and still count on their members, or most of them, to still vote for Democratic candidates. And if they didn’t go to the polls and vote Democratic, so what? They still only represented a small percentage of working people, and indeed because many union leaders have been so unconnected with their workers, unions haven’t even been all that good at delivering their votes on election day.
To survive, the US labor movement needs to undergo a sea change, from being basically a collection of “business unions,” to again becoming a mass political movement of workers. They need to be led by committed activists not by people looking for salaries, benefits, perks, a nice paid office staff and the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, They need leaders who worked their way up through the ranks of fellow workers, earning their positions because of their selflessness and militancy, not because they went to college and got a degree in labor law or management.
The labor movement needs to cut loose from the Democratic Party, where it has long moored itself, wasting vast amounts of its scarce resources and energy in bi-annual or quadrennial exercises to support lackluster candidates and in “get-out-the-vote” drives by members going door to door to plead with people to vote for their favored Democratic candidate — someone who most of the time forgets them once elected as did Obama, or who even turns around and screws them.
Unions and a real political labor movement have over history been the only way workers have succeeded in winning such crucial things as the right to organize and to form unions, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, a 40-hour week with overtime for extra work, paid vacations, Social Security, and other key legislation. As they have become increasingly weak over the decades, many of those great victories have been whittled away. The biggest loss has been a trend by employers to convert their workers into “independent contractors,” who lose all protection under federal and state labor laws. The political system has done little to oppose this disastrous trend which doubly weakens unions because independent contractors are generally deemed unable to form or join unions since they are not considered to be employees.
In those early battles for worker rights, unions were a militant movement. They rallied, they struck employers frequently, they confronted police, Pinkerton private security goons and even National Guard troops, held sit-ins at work-sites to prevent them from operating, and ran powerfully effective boycotts of companies that tried to bust their organizing or bargaining campaigns.
The irony is that polls still show that, weak as they are, unions have the support of a majority of the nation’s workers, who keep saying that if they could have a union at their place of work, they would want one. But it’s increasingly hard to organize a union in the current fire-at-will environment.
The answer is militant, aggressive unions with dedicated leaders who win their positions by proving themselves as fellow workers, working their way up as picketers walking the line, as shop stewards, as grievance officers, as organizers and who are willing to work as leaders either as volunteers in their leadership roles, not as paid executives.
Here’s hoping that the Supreme Court’s latest deliberately anti-union decision turns out to produce exactly that result.
DAVE LINDORFF was a founder and early organizer of the National Writers Union (NWU-UAW), successfully organized a local of the Hotel and Restaurant workers back in 1972 when he was working as an employee of the Sarah Lawrence College food service contractor, and also was active during the ‘70s in the New York City part of the national grape and lettuce boycott run by the National Farmworkers Union as a part of its successful campaign to win the union’s first contracts with California growers.