Venkata: Janus v. AFSCME just started, and will matter for a long time

Public-sector labor is being threatened across the country.

Uma Venkata

On Feb. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments for Janus v. AFSCME. Mark Janus is an Illinois public employee, and, since he is not a union member, he protests his legal requirement to pay the fee that covers the cost of his union representation. The defendant, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with 1.6 million members is the biggest public-employee trade union in the U.S. 

This case is important and complicated. 

In 1977, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education argued the “agency shop” arrangement, implemented in 22 states, wherein every public-sector employee must pay the union fee (or “agency” or “fair-share fee”) — whether or not the employee has union membership. SCOTUS ruled that if unions use fair-share fees for “collective-bargaining, contract-administration, and grievance-adjustment purposes” it is indeed lawful, because these purposes are in the best interest of all public employees. 

Then in 2015, Illinois’s Gov. Bruce Rauner delayed passing his state’s budget for two-and-a-half years, to invite a legal challenge again over the fair-share fee. Then, in January of 2016, a few teachers argued against it in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association thereby requesting a repeal of the Abood ruling. When Justice Antonin Scalia died, the remaining eight were split evenly between the final ruling, so the case was tabled. We return to Rauner’s campaign in Illinois, which became Janus v. AFSCME. 

Janus urges SCOTUS to overrule its Abood decision because even though unions spend fair-share fees only for the three reasons above — never for political purposes — the very nature of the collective bargaining is political enough to be the same as paying to support a group that lobbies for the government. The court is expected to rule in his favor this summer, with Justice Neil Gorsuch, making every state right-to-work. 

Janus is backed by Rauner and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and has ubiquitous funding from the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation. Their goal is to dismantle labor unions in blue states. (Red states are already right-to-work). The organizations that try to demerit labor unions hide their intentions well by using consistently pro-worker vocabulary. They never outright attack unions, but claim to fight for “free speech,” “worker rights” and “workplace freedom.” However, internal documents clarify this frankly vague language — for example, the State Policy Network works with many other anti-union organizations to “defund and defang” government employee unions.

Union membership is a major determinant of social and economic mobility. The effects are higher education, higher incomes (especially for families headed by low-skilled workers), health-insurance rates, stable home environments for children, parity for people of color —the list goes on. 

Please remember that centuries of modern labor have proven that unions are central to the stability, security and equality of every working citizen. 

If the legal jargon makes you feel like you can skip right through, please walk away knowing this: without labor unions, working people have no unified voice. Negotiating for fair pay, safe working conditions, and other rights is practically impossible when opposition advocates for lower pay and less “inconvenience” to the employer. Without unions, all working people, and at a disproportionate rate, people of color, will suffer.

Unions are what make our country a land of opportunity for everyone. I believe that in Minnesota, the earning gap that unions fight against shouldn’t keep growing. American workers don’t deserve to lose the rights the unions look out for, and no American deserves to lose the equality that unions work for too.