Union Workers Protest 'Right To Work' Amendment

Supreme Court Case Threatens Unions and Women of Color

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could disrupt the financial sustainability of union organizing in at least 22 states.

Mark Janus, the plaintiff of Monday’s case, wants the Supreme Court to undo a forty-year precedent decided in the 1977 ruling of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education which permits state and local government to require non-union public employees to pay partial fees to support the administrative costs of the union representing workers to their collective employer. The goal of these “fair-share” fees is to prevent non-union employees from free-riding off the benefits of unions’ work negotiating for fair wages and working conditions.

If the court rules against unions, it’s possible that 1.5 million Black women will no longer have equitable union representation. Membership fees sustain union operations, which tend to support marginalized workers in particular. Public sector unions have fought for equal pay for women of color and have historically served as advocates for workplace integration. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Black women union members have increased their wages up to 94.9 percent of their Black male counterparts, compared to 91 percent of non-union Black women. The National Women’s Law Center found similar outcomes for unionized Latina women as well. While we have not achieved full pay equity across race and gender, unions prove themselves to be one vehicle to push for systemic change.

An important exception made under the 1977 ruling is that nonunion members are currently not required to pay for lobbying or political activities because such a requirement would infringe upon their freedom of speech if their ideology were not aligned with the union’s actions. This did not include public sector bargaining, when government workers negotiate with government for their wages and work conditions. This year’s Janus vs. AFSCME considers public sector bargaining as a political activity and therefore does not want nonunion employees to be forced to pay for it. Janus’ perspective is contradictory to the purpose of unions, which is to fight for fair wages and working conditions – even, or especially when they are employed by the government. If collective bargaining for workers’ rights is considered “political,” then how will unions operate?

Limiting bargaining power through financial control is barring a democratic right. Janus’ conservative agenda obstructs an already tenuous economic system where marginalized people, particularly women of color, rely on union support to raise their wages.

Janus’ supporters suggest that if the Supreme Court rules in his favor to make fees optional, employees who’ve benefited from union representation under fair-share payments can choose to just pay regular dues, but since they aren’t union members, they will no longer be compelled to contribute. The 22 states that currently enforce fair-share payments actually have higher union membership numbers and stronger statewide workforce policies compared to states that do not enforce these payments. This comparison suggests that fair-share payments encourage employees to rightfully participate in workplace activism, a core human right designated by the International Labor Organization.

In fact, the state of California along with many teachers unions argue that fair-share arrangements prevent strikes and internal conflict because they implement a single elected union for government negotiations. Without a single elected union, competing groups of employees would face off in their bargaining negotiations and are less likely to achieve even their shared goals. Fair-share policies not only financially sustain union operations, but they also orchestrate a streamlined approach to bargaining to benefit as many workers as possible across each state.

Lee Saunders, President of AFSCME, reported to Vox that Janus v. AFSCME attacks  “the very ability for people of color to have a decent life, to have decent wages and benefits” and that the case will “take away the freedom to have a seat at the table and will continue to rig the system against the working class.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in June will determine the fate marginalized workers’ organizing power across the country. Let’s keep an eye on this ruling, and prepare to take action to continue defending workers’ rights.

Image Credit: Richard Sennott/Minneapolis Star Tribune

Amanda R. Matos, proud Nuyorican from the Bronx, NY, is the co-founder of the WomanHOOD Project, a Bronx-based youth-led organization for young women of color. She is dedicated to empowering communities of color through capacity building, political education, and civic engagement. Amanda has led community organizing and policy initiatives at Planned Parenthood of New York City and Girls for Gender Equity. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow. On her free time, Amanda eats doughnuts and watches great TV shows like Jane the Virgin and Blackish.

Amanda R. Matos is a community organizer and reproductive justice activist from the Bronx, NY.

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