Aug 6, 2018
The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered an attack against the unions and finally, on the entire working class. The ruling came down in late June and is referred to as the Janus decision.
Under the guise of expanding workers’ rights to free speech, the court ruled that workers in unionized public workplaces cannot be required to pay agency fees to support the costs of union bargaining even if they benefit from bargaining by the union.
It is a move to erode union membership and the unions’ ability to finance their activities.
Of course, the ruling represents the growing strength of the conservative political right wing. But it goes far beyond a partisan move by right-wing Republicans to deprive Democrats of the considerable support and funding they get from the unions. For the entire class of employers, the Janus decision will serve to remove barriers that are in the way of the bosses’ drive to take wages and benefits even lower.
From their perspective, what is most in the way is the remaining organization of workers, and especially the public sector unions.
State and local employees, teachers at the forefront, have remained organized in unions at an estimated rate of around 35 percent, while in the private sector, union representation has fallen to less than 7 percent.
Right to Work legislation over the last period has laid the groundwork for the Janus ruling. In a slightly different way, the Right to Work rules interfere with dues collection by unions. The Janus decision applies to public sector workers only, but in every state.
For decades, the labor environment in the U.S. was structured so as to give workers some rights and protections in exchange for contracts which restricted and controlled fights and strikes in the workplace.
Labor law enacted 80 years ago, based on the Wagner Act and successive rulings, gave workers the right to have their organizations recognized legally, and it prevented some of the worst and most arbitrary tactics of the bosses against organizing attempts.
These laws were enacted following periods of strike actions by workers that organized the very unions themselves: the bosses saw a benefit in establishing a legal framework that constrained further strike movements in return for ceding somewhat better conditions of daily life under capitalism. This was the tradeoff. Finally, this made the unions useful for the bosses by providing, effectively, “labor peace.”
While the period of organizing unions may have coincided with higher wages and expanded benefits, it came at a price. For decades, the working class has failed to organize itself as a class to fight for its own interests. A divided working class has accepted the limits placed upon it without experiencing and learning from struggles of its own, especially in the public sector. For the most part, only older workers in manufacturing or mining can remember strike fights. For decades, we have lived with rules from bosses and bureaucrats that define the limits of what labor can and cannot do.
But today, with decisions like Janus, the bosses show they are ready to tear up the previous framework, with its controls and guarantees, grievance hearings and appeals.
Perhaps they have decided that unions are no longer necessary or useful for them in a period when the working class appears to have accepted reduced wages and benefits, going down, down the road to levels seen in the underdeveloped countries.
Will the working class find a way to hold the line against the attacks that are surely coming? Will it shrug off the constraints that have been placed upon it and fight back in wave after wave of strikes and public protest? Will it fight to defend the current unions and revitalize them?
Certainly, there is the potential and the power in the working class to overcome today’s divisions and to reverse the tide of concessions that have washed over us. To do that, we need our own fighting organizations, with a class policy to move beyond the confines of the bosses’ profit system.