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Siding With Billionaires Against Workers, Supreme Court's Janus Ruling 'An Assault on Labor Movement'

The ruling "will have profound implications for not just the 6.8 million state and local government workers covered by a union contract, but all 17.3 million state and local government workers and indeed for every working person throughout the country."

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union at the Richard J. Daley Center plaza on February 26, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a blow to worker rights, ruling 5-4 that public sector unions cannot collect so-called "fair share" fees that help unions represent all workers, including non-unionized ones.

The decision (pdf) "marks a victory in the decades long Republican campaign to undermine the labor movement," said Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires. "Unfortunately though, it is a victory for everyone except the American worker. This is an assault on the labor movement, full stop, and should not be commemorated as anything less."

Among the labor leaders criticizing the decision was Lily Eskelsen García, president of teh National Education Association (NEA), who called it "a blatant slap in the face for educators, nurses, firefighters, police officers, and all public servants who make our communities strong and safe. We are living in a system that is rigged to benefit special interests and billionaires, all at the expense of working people. Those behind this case know that unions amplify workers' voices and transform their words into powerful and collective action."

Writing the majority opinion for Janus vs. AFSCME, Justice Samuel Alito described the requirement of fees that cover collective bargaining from workers who benefit from union representation as a violation of workers' First Amendment rights.

Reacting to the high court's decision, which overturns a 1977 court precedent set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, AFSCME, the union being challenged in the case, said on Twitter that it "sends our economy in the wrong direction" and slammed the court for "sid[ing]with billionaires":

According to Celine McNicholas, director of labor law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute, "the Court elevated the objections of a minority over the democratically determined choices of the majority of workers and prohibited state and local government workers from negotiating collective bargaining agreements with fair share fee arrangements."

The impact of the ruling, she continued, is that "workers who wish to join in union will be forced to operate with fewer and fewer resources. This will lead to reduced power—at the bargaining table and in the political process. It will have profound implications for not just the 6.8 million state and local government workers covered by a union contract, but all 17.3 million state and local government workers and indeed for every working person throughout the country."

Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissenting opinion—which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor—noted the "large-scale  consequences" as well.

"Public employee unions will lose a secure source of financial support. State and local governments that thought fair-share provisions furthered their  interests will need to find new ways of managing their work-forces.  Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways." Acknowledging the overturning of Abood, she said, "Rarely if ever has the court overruled a decision—let alone one of this import—with so little regard for the usual principles of stare decisis," referring to the doctrine of precedent.

She went on to accuse the conservative majority of overturning "Abood for no exceptional or special reason, but because it never liked the decision. It has overruled Abood because it wanted to."

But "maybe most alarming, the majority has chosen the winners by turning the First Amendment into a sword, and using it against workaday economic and regulatory policy," she wrote. "The First Amendment... was meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance—including over the role of  public-sector unions," she concluded.

 "We are more resolved than ever to fight like hell to win for our members and the communities they care so much about."
—Lee Saunders, AFSCME
AFSCME, for its part, stressed that the case should serve as "a rallying point" for workers and union members nationwide.

 "America needs unions now more than ever," said Lee Saunders, president, of the union. "We are more resolved than ever to fight like hell to win for our members and the communities they care so much about."

The lead plaintiff in the case was Mark Janus, an employee at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Human Services, who was represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Liberty Justice Center, which is the litigation partner of the State Policy Network (SPN) affiliate Illinois Policy Institute.
 
SPN, the Center for Media and Democracy explained, "is the tip of the spear of far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party. SPN groups operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support. SPN shares many of same sources of funding as ALEC, including Koch institutions."
 
"The architects of this decision have a far larger goal than just hamstringing public unions and workers."
—Bonnie Castillo, NNU
SPN documents first published by the Guardian last year included a fundraising letter from 2016 written by SPN president and CEO Tracie Sharp, which described the group's $8.39 million "Breakthrough 2016" campaign to advance the alliance's goals to "defund and defang" unions. Another document was a "State Workplace Freedom Toolkit" that presented "four policy prescription for effective union reform" and described "defensive and offense" approaches to its attack on unions.
 
Given that background, the reaction to the ruling from National Nurses United (NNU) co-president Deborah Burger was unsurprising. Janus, she said, is "a gift to billionaires, corporate executives, and far right lobbying groups that have worked for years to destroy worker rights and unions. It also harms women and people of color who have historically had more economic opportunity in public workplaces in contrast to decades of discrimination by private employers."
 
"But the architects of this decision have a far larger goal than just hamstringing public unions and workers," warned NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo. "They want to remove any opposition to their agenda of eliminating all protections on public health and safety, in healthcare, environmental pollution, clear air and water, food safety, and workplace standards, that they see as an impediment to their profits and authoritarian power."

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