The Janus Case: mustard gas for unions?

Unions were powerful once



Tony Utano, President of the TWU Local 100 recently told his members that the Janus Case is like “mustard gas”. You can see it, but you can’t predict which way the wind will blow it. He clearly means that the expected Supreme Court decision, with Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, will have unpredictable and devastating consequences for unions, public and private.

Why would a single Supreme Court case cause a union leader to liken it to the deadly World War I chemical weapon? Because when the Court decides in favor of the plaintiff, Mark Janus, the mustard gas will instantly spread to the 22 states that currently allow union dues to be automatically deducted from government worker’s paychecks. The loss of revenue could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, crippling the public unions.

What is this case and why should the average citizen take notice? A grossly simplified historical context may help fill in the big picture. For about 30 years since the end of World War II there had been a mutually beneficial arrangement between Big Labor, Big Government, and Big Corporations. Especially for the sake of labor peace, each party made concessions that ultimately benefited all. Unions were able to negotiate decent wages, benefits, and retirement for their members. These arrangements set the standard for the entire country. In the last 30 years this virtuous circle has been steadily ripped apart.

When Mark Janus objected to the $50 union fee automatically deducted from his check, he claimed his right to free speech and free association was being violated. It just so happened that the Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation came to his defense, finding Janus the perfect front man for their agenda.

Should government workers be forced to pay union dues, sometimes called “agency fees” or “fair share fees”? Mr. Janus, in an interview with Fox News said that, for instance, in Illinois his union advocated a soda tax, something he was against. Why should he have to pay when he disagreed with his union? When this reporter asked Mark Riley, a press spokesman for the 1199 Chapter of the SEIU in NYC whether such fees were in fact “forced speech”, he laughed and said the argument was a “Bugs Bunny cartoon”. He continued:” most unions have firewalls between voluntary political action contributions and union dues.”

Indeed. To make their case, the Right-to-Work legal team representing Mr. Janus must overturn a 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Ed. This case drew a distinction between forced payments for a union’s political activities, and union work representing workers in areas such as grievance proceedings, salary, pension, and benefit negotiations. In anticipation of the upcoming Janus decision, Governor Cuomo of New York signed new legislation at the UFT headquarters in NYC that allows public unions to limit services and representation to workers who decide not to join the union. At the signing, Governor Cuomo warned the Janus lawsuit was the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the attack on working people by the “extreme conservative movement that is sweeping the country.”

Let’s make this completely clear. In our modern industrial society, organizations tend to be very big. A lone individual cannot hope to negotiate with a large corporation, or a big government, on a level playing field. That is why collective bargaining is crucial. Collective bargaining means that a group of representatives negotiate on behalf of all the workers. To prepare for these negotiations, to provide the services, Abood separated this union work from the purely political activities a union also does. If a worker refuses to pay and still gets the services and representation, he becomes a free rider. Eventually the ability of unions to perform the essential work is hampered due to financial constraints. The Janus case would result in masses of free riders. Janus is claiming these AGENCY fees block his first amendment.

The Right to Work Legal Defense team is funded by the Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation has stated publicly that its goal is to get rid of any requirement to fund the unions, in the name of “freedom” and “prosperity”. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker implemented the Bradley Foundation’s policy goals to limit collective bargaining, causing a worldwide stir. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, evidence was reported that the Bradley Foundation is taking the Wisconsin model national:

Bradley Foundation, worth nearly $900 million, is underwriting local think tanks, opposition research centers, candidate recruitment groups, conservative media, bill-drafting organizations and litigation centers around the nation  what some critics call “shadow governments. (Daniel Bice, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. May 5, 2017)

Since Governor Walker’s success in Wisconsin, 15 states have passed bills restricting collective bargaining by public workers.

Rob Stein, of the liberal group Democracy Alliance, said of this: “If they [Bradley Foundation network] control state legislatures and governors and both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Donald Trump is president, they control the country.” Mary Bottari, of the Center for Media and Democracy wrote in an article on the Bradley Foundation: “Why does Bradley want to annihilate unions? Because if you dismantle unions, you destroy a key funder of the Democratic Party and its ‘army on the ground,’ as Newt Gingrich once put it.”

The New York Times reported (“Striking a Blow for the Big Guys”, Feb 26, 2018) that in the states that have adopted right-to-work laws, more people go uninsured, workers also make about $6000 less a year and are 49% more like to die on the job, than in other states.

In the United States today, 25% of American workers make less than $10 an hour. This is below poverty level. Most low wage workers do not receive benefits from their employers-no health insurance, no retirement plans, no guaranteed sick days. Collective bargaining has negotiated the standard for these things for workers which has formed the backbone of a decent middle-class life for honest workers just doing their job.

Tony Utano said that Mark Janus must be the most naïve man in the world to think case is about the first amendment. It is about releasing mustard gas to cripple the bargaining power of the American worker.

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