Under-the-Radar Supreme Court Case Poses Profound Threat to Unions Nationwide

"Hyperbole aside, a decision that makes the whole public sector 'right to work' could be devastating," argued Labor Notes writer Samantha Winslow. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP)

Under-the-Radar Supreme Court Case Poses Profound Threat to Unions Nationwide

Case could result in the enforcement of 'Right to Work' laws on all public sector labor unions in the United States

Workers across the United States are bracing for a major Supreme Court case, set for argument on Monday, that could strike a devastating blow to public sector unions nationwide.

Backed by right-wing anti-union groups including the Center for Individual Rights, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association seeks to overturn the legal framework under which public sector unions require workers who benefit from their representation--from higher wages to improved conditions--to pay their fair share.

In other words, the case could result in the enforcement of so-called "Right to Work" (RTW) laws--dubbed by critics as "Right to Work for Less"--on all public labor unions in the United States.

The current case is one of many attempts to undo Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) and follows the passage of RTW laws in 25 states.

The case has huge implications for public unions. According to the editorial board of The Nation, the reversal of Abood would "trigger an earthquake in American labor relations."

"The legal foundations of thousands of public-sector bargaining agreements, covering millions of workers providing all manner of public services, will disappear," the editorial continues. "The whole of American public employment, at all levels of government, will become a 'right to work' (i.e., right not to pay for service) killing field for unions."

Unions are planning to mobilize to the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. next week to warn that the case poses a significant threat, not only to union members, but to society at large.

States with RTW laws have more severe poverty, higher infant mortality rates, and greater workplace fatalities, according to studies. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute concluded in April that full-time workers in RTW states make, on average, $1,558 less a year in earnings.

What's more, union members note, strong unions for public employees protect the people those workers serve.

"As nurses our ability to have a collective voice for our patients is critical," Martese Chism, a public hospital nurse in Chicago, said in a statement released Friday by National Nurses United. "Without the support of our union, nurses have little protection to speak out and challenge unsafe staffing or other eroding patient care conditions that happen all too often in our hospitals."

Whatever happens with the the case, rights campaigners urge that now is the time to be vigilant. As Labor Notes writer Samantha Winslow argued last summer, "organizing is the key to surviving Friedrichs."

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