Category Archives: Labor Studies

Labor’s Only Real Choice: Beating Harris v. Quinn and Right-to-Work Attacks From the Inside Out

Jane McAlevey is working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.  This article was written by originally posted in The Nation.

Unions are in trouble. Short of a giant meteor crashing on top of the nation’s union headquarters emblazoned with the words, “warning, you will soon be crushed by right-to-work laws,” few things could be clearer from the Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn ruling.

Harris v. Quinn unites some of the most toxic trends in American labor tradition. It resurrects the worst of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the racially motivated, sexist concept of “excluded workers,” and then joins it with one of the worst provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the so-called “right-to-work” legal framework which attempts to gut unions from the inside-out. (Although “right to work” has historically been a state’s rights concept, Harris v. Quinn effectively nationalizes it.)

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Is Harris v. Quinn a Threat to Labor Peace?

Joshua Freeman is a professor of Labor History at The Murphy InstituteThis article was originally published in The Nation.

The five-to-four Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn is a blow to organized labor, a movement that in recent decades has suffered one blow after another, with victories few and far between. But it is not as devastating as many unionists feared. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation hoped to use this case involving Illinois homecare aides to overturn the 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision which found it constitutional to require public employees who choose not to join a union to pay an “agency fee” to cover the costs of representing them. The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, took lots of potshots at Abood, but did not overturn it. Nonetheless, it ruled the agency fee illegal in this case, deeming the home aides involved not “full-fledged public employees” because under Illinois law they are jointly employed by the state and the individual clients they care for.

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Bad Week for Workers at the Supreme Court

By Penny Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute. 

It’s been a bad week for workers and unions at the US Supreme Court (not to mention women and families in general).  Last week, in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the Court affirmed the lower court decision that three appointments to the labor board made by President Obama in 2012 were invalid.  In the 18 months that these board members served, 436 cases were decided.  As the Washington Post reports, the current board will likely reaffirm the decisions it must revisit, but it’s not clear yet whether the effect of the ruling will be to force large scale revisiting of the decided cases, an outcome which would create a major backlog for the board. 

Worse, in the long and short terms, was the verdict in Harris v. Quinn, the case that the labor movement has been following with fearful anticipation for the past year.  Creating a new employee category of “partial public employee,” Alito’s majority decision found that such workers were not obliged to pay fees to unions that represented them if they were not members of the union themselves.  Putting the decision in historical context, Jane McAlevey points out

Harris v. Quinn takes aim at public-sector workers precisely because today they are the largest segment of unionized workers and, not coincidentally, a leading source of employment for people of color and women. The efforts of today’s economic elite to inflict a Taft-Hartley on the fastest-growing group of workers within public sector unions — home-care and childcare employees — seem like déjà vu.

While public sector unions dodged the worst outcome for now—which would be overturning all agency fees in the public sector— the decision written by Justice Alito lays groundwork for overturning Abood, the 1977 decision that allows unions to address the problem of “free riders” by charging agency fees for non-members in unionized workplaces.  For excellent coverage (and links to even more coverage) see On Labor.

Penny Lewis is Academic Director of Labor Studies and an Associate Professor of Labor Studies at The Murphy Institute.

Photo by Steve Rhodes via flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND).

Harris v. Quinn: Separate, and not equal

Jane McAlevey is working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.  This article was originally posted on Waging Nonviolence

It’d be more than alarming and resoundingly condemned if any institution in the United States tried to take our country back to the days before Dred Scott, or to when people of color in this country fell under the racist and dehumanizing “three-fifths rule.” But the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn smacks of a new three-fifths rule by declaring the fastest growing occupation in the nation — an occupation dominated by people of color and women — as made up of “partial” or “quasi” public employees. The Harris decision, which concludes that workers who provide essential government services to the frail and elderly aren’t “full” public employees, is best understood in the context of two other seminal moments when U.S. lawmakers stacked the deck for employers and against people of color and women trying to improve their lot in life by forming strong unions.

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Readers Responses to: Thoughts on Union Structures, Labor History And Union Member Consciousness

Last week we posted a piece from Nick Unger about union structures, labor history and union member consciousness. Below, you can find seven responses from readers of The Murphy Institute Blog.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of Nick Unger’s Series, coming soon.

From Gene Carroll at The Worker Institute at Cornell

A few years back Rutgers professor Janice Fine expressed to a forum on worker centers that “labor unions are difficult to join.” Nick Unger’s deconstruction of the Wagner Act’s impact on working class mobilization and consciousness reminded me of her keen insight.  The new forms of labor organizations that have emerged (worker centers, alt. labor) with some support from but still largely independent of traditional unions, is one result of, and a reaction to, how the Wagner Act has painted unions into a corner…structurally and vision-wise.  How do we make these new organizational forms sustainable without actual collective bargaining contracts and its benefits, which exist alongside of the internal contractions Nick explores?  How can labor’s new forms of leverage help unions to become much less difficult to join?  What is the relationshiop between the previous two questions?  Thank you, brother Unger, for sharing your thinking labor.

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