On Monday, February 26, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a pivotal case which could have devastating effects for unions across the country. A ruling in favor of Janus would strike at a foundation of the American working class by eroding the ability of public-sector workers to fight for living wages, benefits, and dignity. Here in Santa Barbara, that decision would affect the 2,500 unionized workers at UCSB, undercutting solid middle-class jobs at the largest employer in the city with obvious economic impacts.
This case revolves around Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee who is bringing a complaint against the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents him on the job. As a represented worker, Mark Janus must pay a “fair-share” fee to help cover the costs of bargaining and administering the contract under which he works. Janus, however, doesn’t want to pay.
He argues that such a requirement violates his First Amendment right to free speech. Even though “fair-share” fee payers don’t have to pay for union political activities, Janus argues that because public sector bargaining involves advocating for the allocation of government resources, all collective bargaining activities by a public-sector union are inherently political. Because he does not agree with the mission of the union, he believes that his right to free speech is violated.
Public sector unionism has grown dramatically since Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead a Memphis organizing drive for sanitation workers in 1968. Those workers faced horrible working conditions; two were crushed to death when lightening set off an ill maintained compactor in which they had sought shelter during a rainstorm. The workers unionized, won a contract, raised their wages and achieved a measure of personal dignity and political power. Since then, many states across the nation have adopted their own laws enabling workers to bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
In Janus v. AFSCME, the high court is being asked to overturn the unanimous 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case gave states the right to allow public sector unions to collect fees from the workers they represent in order to cover the costs of bargaining. These are called agency or “fair-share” fees.
The logic behind the Abood decision is that those who benefit from the contract should have to share in the burden of negotiating it. This is hardly a controversial point. Even conservative Justice Scalia, argued in defense of Abood nearly three decades ago that, “Where the state imposes upon the union a duty to deliver services, it may permit the union to demand reimbursement for them; or, looked at from the other end, where the state creates in the nonmembers a legal entitlement from the union, it may compel them to pay the cost.”
The Janus case would overturn the unanimous decision in Abood by making it illegal for public sector unions to require the workers they represent to pay their fair share of negotiating a contract. This would wash away 40 years of judicial precedent and state legislative decisions established by people from all sides of the political spectrum. In effect, Mark Janus could free-ride off of the payments of his colleagues while simultaneously reaping the benefits of the contract negotiation. This would ultimately weaken the ability of a union to do its job of representing its members because the union will have fewer resources.
The effects of the diminished bargaining power of unions would be devastating on local economies like Santa Barbara. In the states where fair-share fees are already outlawed, workers earn 22 percent less than their counterparts in agency fee states. Beyond the obvious loss of wages, workers in these states have 22 percent less health coverage and suffer 49 percent more workplace fatalities than their counterparts. As the workers at UCSB start to suffer the impacts of lower wages and higher health insurance costs, they would further retreat from participating in the local economy. As the largest employer in Santa Barbara, these impacts would ripple across the city and county.
The voices of working people should be united against Janus and his billionaire backers, as a ruling in his favor would slowly silence the voice of the working class and their ability to negotiate for fair wages, benefits, and dignity. Janus v. AFSCME stands on a symbolic threshold in the world of work, one in which nine justices will have the ability to direct the lives of working people toward fairness and security or abandoning them to their individual fate.