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Est. April 5, 2002
October 05, 2017 - Issue 714

Public Worker Unions on the Block

"As union power dwindled, so did America’s middle class,
because, when unions were at full strength and about
35 percent of workers were in unions, the gains made in
pay, benefits, and pensions were passed along to the
other 65 percent of workers who were not in unions."

The oligarchs of America are about to set fire to the straw man that they have created to show that unions are somehow separate from the workers who are their members.

Over the past three generations, they have steeped Americans in the propaganda that unions have a life of their own and just dropped in to the nation’s workplaces for the sole purpose of siphoning off workers’ pay for their own coffers. At the same time, they have convinced a majority of Americans that unions no longer serve a purpose in modern society, since employers have become so benevolent that no representation is necessary.

Now comes Neil Gorsuch, the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, just as a landmark case involving the right of unions to collect the equivalent of dues from non-members, who are the direct beneficiaries of union struggles for good pay, good benefits, and pensions. For many years, the rich and powerful have been grinding down workers and their unions. As long as unions had some power in the national economy, there was a growing middle class, but it only lasted for a decade or two.

The vast amounts of money spent on anti-union propaganda have had their effect. Less than 11 percent of workers are in unions, overall, and unions in the private sector are only at 6 percent or less. As union power dwindled, so did America’s middle class, because, when unions were at full strength and about 35 percent of workers were in unions, the gains made in pay, benefits, and pensions were passed along to the other 65 percent of workers who were not in unions.

In the case before the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, as Gorsuch first takes his seat, is to determine whether workers who refuse to join the union in the workplace can be required to pay what is called an “agency fee.” Such fees are non-union workers’ fair share to help carry the burden of negotiating and protecting workers from the employer’s arbitrary actions. For a few generations, this has been the case and even some Right Wingers could see the fairness of such a requirement, as the clause in contracts stood for years. (Disclosure: I worked for AFSCME for many years.)

Janus is being presented as a First Amendment issue by the plaintiff and all the Right-Wing lawyers, think tanks, pundits, and news outlets, of which there are many. For sure, those who want to defund unions through this case would not want individual citizens to have their choice whether to pay taxes or not. After all, that’s where they get money for their pay, benefits and perks, and all the money for their defense and military budgets and for the bailouts of any corporations that holds out its hand for free money.

Workers and their unions call these people “free riders,” although there are many other names for people who let others do their work for them. It’s no wonder that Corporate America and the rich like those free riders, because they are often free riders themselves, attaching to the backs of wage workers and, thereby, getting their wealth and income from nothing less than someone else’s paycheck.

Despite the stock market reports in newspapers, magazines, or on television, hardly anyone ever covers the story of millions of workers who are struggling to just get by. And, as the economy is falling into fewer and fewer hands, the corporations continue to buy their goods from foreign sources that are cheaper than American-made goods, at least for now. As well, CEOs are plunging ahead with more sophisticated robots for production and they are planning far ahead to the time when those robots will be operated via artificial intelligence, which is being prepared to invent and produce the robots. The time is coming and the question is: What’s to happen to all the surplus humans who still must live on earth? They eat. Robots don’t eat. Humans need rest. Robots don’t need much rest. Humans want to educate their children. Robots don’t have children or family. Humans want health care as a right. Robots are either repaired or are recycled and others can be constructed. At one time, humans looked to their elders for wisdom and advice. Programmed robots are intended to make elders obsolete.

It is not clear how Gorsuch will vote, of course, but those who have watched him and his writings and actions believe that he will be at least as much in favor of all of the issues that Corporate America brings before the court as the late Antonin Scalia, whose place on the court he is taking. The speculation is that he will cast his vote to deprive unions of their just compensation by way of agency fees and that this will deal a death blow to the remnants of the union movement.

If he votes to take away fairness in the workplace on the agency fee issue, the union movement will have to find other ways to get justice at work, an issue that is just as important as civil rights and voting rights, both of which have been chipped away over the past several presidential terms, and it has been widely reported that voter suppression, perpetrated mainly by Republicans in the north and the old Dixiecrats (New Republicans) in the south. The effects of voter suppression in many states have affected black and brown voters, but the fairness issue in the workplace will have an effect on all workers, including women, who have been making progress in all spheres of national life in recent years.

Never be fooled by the plaint of the corporations and the rich about “protecting the rights of individual workers,” as they bring these cases before the courts. They care nothing about the rights of workers, as they care nothing about the workers. It is merely the wedge that they use to get at the fundamental rights of all workers. Those workers who allow their names used in these landmark cases are useful dupes and, whatever their reward for stabbing their fellow workers in the back, it will never be enough to make up for their cowardly behavior.

U.S. labor laws came into being over a long period of time and, as weak as they have proven to be over decades, they provided a way to end the bloody street wars between labor and capital, most of which were won by capital, because they had the endless money to hire gun thugs, private “security companies,” and the power to demand that governors and mayors call in the National Guard or the army to quell the uprisings. Those laws that protected the workers have been whittled away for generations and Janus v. AFSCME might very well be a near mortal blow to all unions.

It’s not hard to see the eventual result: Just look at the State of Wisconsin, where the governor, Scott Walker, the lap dog of the Koch Brothers, has done serious damage to working men and women, taking away, among other things, the right to collective bargaining for public unions except for the police and firefighters unions. A majority of states have passed so-called right-to-work laws, which place most of the power in the hands of the bosses. That condition of servitude cannot last forever.

Not long after the Supreme Court announced it would again take up the case that would seriously wound the union movement, Justice Gorsuch appeared to speak at the Trump Hotel, before one of the groups that have a history of funding anti-union legal cases and other ways of weakening the rights of workers and their unions. Gorsuch, at the end of September, spoke at Trump’s International Hotel at the invitation of the Fund for American Studies, which is supported in part by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that has funneled money into various corporate anti-union efforts over the years.

While it may be true in the abstract that there is no ethical question involved in a sitting SCOTUS justice speaking at a hotel owned by the president, who directly benefits financially from the event, it does not look good for Gorsuch, the anti-union sponsoring organization, and the president coming together in such a strange way. Considering that Trump has put into place heads of government agencies who hold their agencies in some degree of contempt, workers who depend on a paycheck should be preparing for rough times ahead. The only protection of their rights and benefits will rest in unity and solidarity in workplaces across the country. It’s time to get on with it. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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