In an ironic turn of events, the United States Supreme Court is considering whether to curtail workers’ First Amendment rights in an effort to uphold First Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court heard arguments last week for Janus v. AFSCME, a case involving Mark Janus, a nonunion employee of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and a major labor union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. In 22 states, including California, nonunion workers in public sector, union-represented workforces must pay fair-share union fees. Janus, however, argues this fee requirement breaches the First Amendment rights of nonunion workers because bargaining with the government is intrinsically political.
A court ruling in favor of Janus would slash the operating budgets of unions, impairing their ability to demonstrate and negotiate on behalf of employees. At the University of California, this would hurt unions that represent lecturers, graduate student workers and other vital employees.
Such a decision looks entirely possible with the ideological balance of the court. But ruling in favor of Janus would restrict workers’ abilities to fight for their needs.
Unions have raised wages for workers across the UC. In 2016, Teamsters Local 2010, a union representing skilled trades workers at UCLA, successfully negotiated a wage increase for 600 workers. And the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing UCLA lecturers, has secured four pay raises for lecturers over the past four years.
These union-organized bargains didn’t just improve pay for union workers, but for all workers. The UC Student-Workers Union Local 2865, for example, which represents student workers, is advocating for expanded health benefits and the establishment of the UC schools as sanctuary campuses – demands that, if met, would help not just workers, but also other members of the University.
That’s why it makes sense for nonunion workers to pay fair-share fees: Their needs are fought for even if they don’t find the energy or time to do so themselves. The absence of these fees would mean unions would have less capital to work with while still trying to represent the entire workforce – a forced downsizing, in other words.
Moreover, ruling in favor of Janus would break from the precedent set by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In the 1977 case, the court upheld a Michigan statute authorizing unions to collect fair-share fees from nonunion workers as constitutional, as long as unions collected fees to finance collective bargaining and contract administration. The court’s opinion pointed out that a nonunion employee worker with objections is still entitled to use their First Amendment rights to express their opinion on the requirement.
Certainly, the court has overturned precedent in the past. But such decisions have generally followed drastic changes in social and legal circumstances. The social circumstances regarding unions have have not changed significantly enough to warrant a departure from previous decisions. In fact, the Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed the Abood precedent as recently as 2009 in its ruling on Locke v. Karass. By overturning the Abood ruling now, it wouldn’t be securing one worker’s freedom of speech – it would just be scoring political points.
Unions are born from the need for workers to unite and organize to improve their working conditions. It’s easy to think unions are an unnecessary expense because the benefits they fight for are not immediately realized. But gutting union funding in the name of First Amendment rights doesn’t help workers; it only gives employers a bigger stick to bully them with.