Jul 7, 2014
The Supreme Court struck a blow against unions as they exist today. Ruling on an appeal from a few home care providers in Illinois, backed up by a national anti-union group and big money, the five ultra-conservative members of the Supreme Court ruled that workers cannot be required to pay an agency fee to a union.
“Agency fees” evolved from the paternalistic, bureaucratic way labor law was established in this country. It requires a union, once authorized, to represent all workers, whether or not all workers voted for the union and whether or not they want to belong to the union. The political rationale for “agency fees” is that since the union is required to represent all workers – union members and non-members alike – those non-members who don’t pay union dues should be required to pay a fee to cover expenses tied to negotiations and grievances. It’s just a simple business contract, the union serving as a lawyer for the workers.
The June ruling of the Supreme Court was said to be written somewhat “narrowly,” that is, applying only to the particular circumstances of the Illinois case. But the actual text of the ruling repeatedly attacked the 1977 Supreme Court ruling that had first authorized “agency fees.” And almost every commentator assumes that this case is only the beginning of what will be a series of Supreme Court rulings that will deprive unions of resources, rendering them unable to function.
The fact is, unions today depend on employers to collect dues for them. They depend on favorable rulings from the courts, or at least not overtly hostile rulings. They depend on “friendly” politicians – who can turn “unfriendly” overnight.
1977, when the court authorized “agency fees,” was not a period of growing labor unrest – just the opposite. Strikes had begun a steady downward slide, union membership was going down. “Agency fees,” combined with deals cut with supposedly “friendly” governors helped the unions for a period of time to mask the fact that they were losing members in their traditional strongholds. Unable to convince workers in the “transplants” or in many of the parts plants to join their union, for example, UAW leaders looked toward public sector workers, including graduate assistants at universities, as a way to maintain total union income.
In another example, 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 negotiations between a governor or other public official and the union apparatus. The workers were barely consulted, often going through only a perfunctory vote, whose outcome was practically preordained.
At that point, 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 politicians granted union recognition and agency fees as another tit-for-tat deal: Union dues for votes and bodies to work on election campaigns.
The political winds have shifted. Republicans have become outright hostile to unions, and Democrats only lukewarm “friends.” (Democrats for years talked about making it easier to organize a union but they haven’t yet delivered on their talk.)
It’s obvious that workers need to organize themselves. Without organization, each individual worker stands at the mercy of powerful and wealthy interests. But it doesn’t require the help of courts or governors or legislatures for workers to organize. The ability to organize rests on the desire of the workers to do it, and the readiness to mobilize their forces – and that rests, in part, on militants in the working class who put their confidence in the workers’ capacities. If there is anything the history of the workers’ movement tells us, it’s that.
The workers today, when they see the need to organize themselves again, have the forces and the potential power that can let them do it – again.