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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLANative American Heritage Month 2021

Submission: Unions more important than ever as Janus v. AFSCME set to weaken them

By Karl Lisovsky

March 1, 2018 9:59 p.m.

Labor unions are bad for billionaires.

Which is why the United States Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME is part of an organized effort by the likes of the Koch brothers, part of an influential conservative family; Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Inc.; and the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, conservative think tank, to make every state a “right to work” state – a clever rhetorical disguise for getting workers to work for less. The plaintiff in this case, Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee, is claiming he is being forced to be represented by his union, and that this forced representation constitutes an abridgment of his free speech

But that’s a gross oversimplification of the truth. In a union job, the union represents everybody. For example, I am a University of California lecturer, and my union, the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, represents me and everyone else with this job title. I can choose whether to sign a membership card, but regardless, 1.5 percent of my pay goes to my union for its efforts on my behalf – efforts such as the four pay raises, each between a 2- to 3- percent increase, the union negotiated with the UC in the last four years.

As the law now stands, I can opt out of this arrangement and not pay the fair share fee. However, labor law is such that my union must represent me anyway. Even if I am a “free rider,” the union has to file a grievance on my behalf if I ask it to.

Recently, organized anti-worker organizations have begun running ads targeting people with union jobs, telling us to “give” ourselves a “pay raise” by opting out of our unions and “saving” that 1.5 percent. Corporations like Walmart aggressively show films to new employees depicting canned narratives that depict unions as useless and who just take your money.

The truth is unions are good for workers, especially workers of color. African-American union members make 14.7 percent more than their nonunion counterparts; Latinos, 21.8 percent more. For women, the absolute numbers tell the story: African-American women earn on average $21.90 an hour, while nonunion women earn $17.04.

So labor unions are indeed bad for billionaires. Unions negotiate pay increases and other benefits for workers – money that could be going to corporate shareholders. In this way, union gains rob the super wealthy of excess profits. The Janus case is an effort on the part of the exclusive club of 1-percenters to bankrupt labor unions.

If the Janus decision goes against us, workers represented by unions will be able to “give themselves a pay raise” by not paying their fair share, yet still be represented by their union. Public employee unions stand to lose about half of their operating budgets with the loss of fair share.

On Feb. 26, the day the Janus vs. AFSCME case was argued at the Supreme Court, we staged an action on the steps of Powell Library. UCLA campus unions representing workers in the technical, clerical, medical as well as academic fields stood together in song, speech and theater. We stood in opposition to the economy rigged in favor of the wealthy few, where people are increasingly working on a contingency basis, with less security, fewer benefits and less stable working conditions. We said to workers who have a union job: Join the union that represents you; don’t be a free rider.

Believe the bumper sticker “Live Better; Work Union,” because it’s true. The middle class was at its strongest from 1940 to 1980, when, not coincidentally, labor unions had achieved their greatest success.

Lisovsky is a lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs. He is also president of Local 1990 of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, a union which represents UC lecturers and librarians.

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Karl Lisovsky
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