Workers’ rights and civil rights are one. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that and ultimately died in the fight for equality and dignity in the workplace. As we remember that horrifying day when he was assassinated 50 years ago, what adds to our revulsion is to know that the fight must continue—it has not been won yet. The Janus case is a grave reminder of that. The fact that such a loathsome case could make it to the Supreme Court and that its supporters represent the worst instincts among a few, but powerful, voices, means that we still have a lot of work to do toward making Dr. King’s “dream” an irreversible reality.
Especially for public sector employees, what’s at stake in the Janus case is enormous. A loss could be catastrophic to us. Here’s why: In 22 states, there are laws requiring public employees to pay “agency fees” to cover the collective-bargaining costs of unions that represent them, even if the employees are not members of the union, but who still gain from collectively bargained salaries, pensions and other benefits that the union negotiated on their behalf. If the court voids those laws, public-sector unions and the politicians they support—who are largely Democrats—could suffer a huge financial blow and reverse 40 years of established labor law.
Such a decision would place a tremendous financial strain on public sector unions. And, with union membership already falling by more than half from 1978 to 2017—26 percent to 10 percent nationwide—with public sector workers comprising the largest component, it might ultimately become the death knell for public unions. Democrats would pay an enormous price. The labor-supportive work that Democratic legislators have done over the years could be undermined, compromised and reversed. Republicans, of course, are rooting for opponents of agency fees.
The basis for the Janus constitutional claim is that these labor laws violate the First Amendment. It is argued that even if agency fees ostensibly fund only collective bargaining, they still can affect public policy. That amounts to forced adherence to a cause that is not necessarily your own. Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, doesn’t agree with AFSCME’s political positions and therefore contends that he should not be forced to pay union dues, even though he has benefited from collective bargaining, and, thanks to existing laws fought for by the union, he can get a refund from the union for any of his dues that are spent on political campaigns.
Recent trends at the Supreme Court suggest that it might indeed take this opportunity to impose a nationwide ban on mandatory dues in the public sector. A similar case ended in a 4-4 tie after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016. With President Trump’s appointee, Neil M. Gorsuch, replacing Scalia, a 5-4 vote against the unions is possible.
The court could settle on a middle-of-the-road decision: That union fees may be used to pay only for a union’s collective-bargaining duties as narrowly defined by state law. That decision would still negatively affect union membership and the financial resources gained from members. Yet to some, this solution might seem acceptable. Lost, however, is perhaps the old-fashioned sense that a union means unity—a sense that we’re all in it together and everyone can benefit. Instead, there’s a misunderstanding that the 40-hour workweek, health benefits, pensions, paid vacation time and on the job safety guarantees were always in place, a given right in every workplace. Nothing could be further from the truth! These benefits were all hard fought for by unions. Today, many workers don’t know the history of unions in America. Some might just want to forget it or ignore it. Freeloaders get benefits anyway. But is that right? Is that what Dr. King fought and died for? As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis—while he was there to help striking sanitation workers—we must remember that workers’ rights and civil rights are one.