Tag Archives: Supreme Court

Public Sector Unions: On the Chopping Block?

Today, the Supreme Court will hear a case with huge implications for public sector unions. The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Union, and at issue is the question of whether members of public sector unions can be required to pay dues to support union efforts.

Over at Gawker, Hamilton Nolan breaks it down (Today They Try to Break the Public Unions):

If you are a government employee in a unionized workplace—a teacher, for example, belonging to a teachers union—you and all of your colleagues pay a set fee to the union, to cover the costs of the union’s work to negotiate a contract that you work under. This is simply the principle of everyone paying their fair share for work that benefits everyone. If you are a teacher and you happen to dislike teachers unions for some political reason, you are not required to be a member of the union; if you do not want to be a member of the union, you cannot be required to pay fees to cover strictly political activities that the union undertakes, like lobbying or political donations to favored candidates. But since the union negotiates the contract that covers everyone, you are still required to pay your fair share fee, called an “agency fee,” to cover bargaining costs.

The Friedrichs case aims to do away with the requirement that those who enjoy the benefits of public union contracts pay an agency fee to cover the cost of getting those contracts in the first place. Why? The legal argument in the case is that all union activity is inherently political, even contract negotiations, and therefore requiring non-members to pay fees to cover bargaining costs still amounts to compelling them to pay for political speech that they disagree with. Because public sector union bargaining involves government spending priorities and whatnot, the plaintiffs say, it is political, and the decision to support it with fees should be purely a choice, rather than a requirement—even if someone is reaping the benefits of the contract the union negotiated for them.

Unions point out the very obvious problem with this idea, which is that it allows “free riders” to get all the benefits of union membership without paying any of the costs. In this sense it would be akin to a local government telling its citizens they only have to pay local taxes to collect garbage and repair roads and clean the streets if they agree with the government politically. It would allow plenty of people to opt out of paying, but still enjoy all of the benefits that the taxes pay for. And if enough people chose to be free-riding leeches rather than voluntarily good taxpaying citizens, it would only be a matter of time before such a government weakened or collapsed.

Read more at Gawker.

Photo by Phil Roeder via flickr (CC-BY).

News Roundup 7/1/15

What a couple of weeks. Civil rights tragedies and victories, both. Marriage equality, a supreme court upholding of the Affordable Care Act, direct action against the confederate flag. In the wake of the South Carolina tragedy, we want to celebrate and mourn, both. And yet, we can’t help sense the march of progress moving inexorably forward. In brief:

  • Tired of waiting for the South Carolina State Representatives to get with the program, activist Bree Newsome (she of #freebree) took direct action by climbing the flag pole in front of the State House to take the confederate flag down.
  • The Supreme Court’s been an active one. In addition to same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land, sections of the Affordable Care Act have been further upheld. In less uplifting news, the EPA’s limits on power plant emissions were deemed to be in violation of the Clean Air Act, and states have been given latitude to use questionable drugs in executions. Still coming up: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a high-stakes case that could transform public sector unions for the worse.
  • Over at Al Jazeera, Amy B. Dean draws connections between the labor movement and #BlackLivesMatter, asking: Is the fight for $15 the next civil rights movement?
  • Despite earlier setbacks and a strong opposition, after a 60-38 Senate vote in favor of the TPA, President Obama signed the bill into law — granting himself fast track authority to negotiate the forthcoming (and persistently opaque) Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
  • In These Times ran an interview by David Moberg of exiting CWA President Larry Cohen about the past and future of the labor movement. According to Cohen, “If labor is going to be just a group of unions with different strategies, it’s not going to be a movement. We need to be organizing other people.”
  • In a welcome act of common sense and dignity, New York City is banning “poor doors” — that is, developers will no longer be allowed to built separate entrances for rich and poor tenants in buildings constructed using tax breaks granted in exchange for low-income units.
  • Janitors from eight companies across the Twin Cities, representing 50 retail locations, participated in a one-day strike on July 1st, raising the profile of organizing efforts within the difficult-to-organize cleaning sector.
  • NYC is set to receive expanded wi-fi coverage with the arrival of LinkNYC, which will turn converted pay phones into wireless hubs. Three cheers for digital access and connectivity! The downside? This means the arrival of “tall, thin pillars with digital tablet interfaces and large ads slapped on the sides.” So long to the psychic environment. We hardly knew ye.
  • It’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen in Greece and Puerto Rico in the face of un-payable national debts. Stay tuned.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker via flickr (CC-BY).

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.

Continue reading Harris v. Quinn: Separate, and not equal