Workers Need Their Own Organization, Not One the Courts Approve

Jul 13, 2014

The Supreme Court struck another blow against unions as they exist today. Ruling on an appeal from some home-care workers in Illinois, the five ultra-conservative members of the Supreme Court ruled that workers cannot be required to pay an “agency fee” to a union.

“Agency fee” evolved from the bureaucratic way labor law was established in this country. It requires a union, once authorized, to represent all workers, whether or not they belong to the union. The political rationale for “agency fees” is that non-members still get the benefits of negotiations and grievances; therefore, they should pay a fee to cover expenses tied to contract negotiations and grievances. It’s a simple business contract, with the union set up as the lawyer for all the workers.

Most legal commentators assume that the June Supreme Court ruling is only the beginning. There will be more rulings depriving unions of resources, rendering them unable to function. The current ruling may not have overturned the earlier 1977 Supreme Court ruling that had authorized “agency fees” – but it came close.

In any case, the same national anti-union group that sponsored this case will keep pushing against unions. It has lots of money, given by some of the wealthiest right-wing zealots in the country.

When the court first authorized “agency fees” in 1977, the unions were losing members in their traditional strongholds. Deals cut with supposedly “friendly” governors helped the unions hide that reality – for awhile.

UAW leaders had been unable to convince workers in many parts plants and then in the “transplants” to join the union. The union turned toward public sector workers and health care workers as a way to maintain membership and total union income. AFSCME rapidly became the biggest union in the country; then it was bypassed by the SEIU. Both targeted some of the same public sector employees, in addition to health care workers.

In many cases, unions got the right to represent certain groups of workers as the result of deals cut between public officials and the union apparatus. The workers were barely consulted, often going through only a perfunctory vote, whose outcome was practically preordained.

Public sector unions began to hold an ever larger share of union membership. But it was not because public sector workers fought to organize themselves into a union, but because of political deals. Union leaders got more members and money; “friendly” politicians got votes and help in their election campaigns.

The political winds have shifted. Republicans have become outright hostile to unions, and “friendly” Democrats turn out to be not so friendly. For years, they talked about making it easier to organize a union – but they haven’t once delivered on all that talk.

It’s obvious that workers need to organize. Without organization, each individual worker stands at the mercy of powerful and wealthy interests. But workers don’t need the help of courts or governors or legislatures to organize. In fact, in the big periods of organizing, workers were successful only because they defied the courts and governors and legislatures.

The ability to organize rests on the workers’ desire to do it, and on their readiness to mobilize their own forces. And that rests, in part, on militants in the working class who put their confidence in the workers’ capacities.

What’s sure is that workers need to organize their forces again. Until they do, our standard of living will continue to go down and this vicious right wing will continue to take the offensive.