Tuesday, September 25

Sam Smoot: GOP’s weaponization of Supreme Court will hurt everyday Americans


(Angela Song/Daily Bruin senior staff)

(Angela Song/Daily Bruin senior staff)


With a trade war on the horizon and thousands of immigrant children still separated from their families, it’s easy to miss the climax of what is being called one of the most influential labor cases of the last half-century.

It’s even easier to miss its troubling political undertones.

The Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on June 27 in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, determining that public sector unions cannot charge fees on nonunion employees for collective bargaining done on their behalf.

These “fair share” fees, supported by the 41 year-old decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, were used to prevent free riders. By law, unions are required to bargain for all workers, not just their members. Because all employees receive these benefits regardless of their union status, there is no incentive to pay union dues without enforcement of these fees.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, public sector union membership is predicted to decline by 8.2 percentage points and unions’ ability to bargain for the the collective welfare of workers will be weakened. Reduced union power will lead to a decrease in wages and benefits among public sector employees, estimated by the Illinois Economic Policy and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at a 3.6 percent reduction in annual income. This includes the members of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents University of California workers, who were on strike in May protesting low wages and benefits.

Conservative politicians and interest groups have spent decades painting unions as corrupt money grubbers who hurt workers. In reality the very function of a union is to give individual workers the power through numbers to demand better conditions. The Supreme Court’s decision further advances the faux right-to-work argument that claims laborers are better off on their own.

Unions were already aiding low-income workers at UCLA by fighting for wages and benefits, and will now find themselves with less resources to do so. The working people of UCLA and beyond will suffer as a result of the Republicans’ politically motivated war on unions.

The Supreme Court’s decision only indicates how Republicans will continue to use their appointment power to stack the courts and have American law reinterpreted to overturn progressive precedents at the expense of labor and beyond.

The Janus decision followed the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, a hardline conservative judge who was confirmed by Republicans in the Senate. Instead of respecting former President Barack Obama’s moderate choice in 2016, Republicans decided to toss convention out the window and stall until after the 2016 election in hopes that a Republican president would fill the vacancy with someone who shared their politics.

Their gamble paid off. The appointment of Gorsuch ensured the ideological leaning of the Supreme Court remained to the right. This calculated move and the subsequent use of the nuclear option to confirm Gorsuch, stands out as brazenly partisan even in light of today’s politics.

And the partisan politics have carried over to the Supreme Court. Unions have long been a political boogeymen for conservatives. They view the organizations as Democratic strongholds, instruments of both political fundraising and voter organization. Grover Norquist, president of the influential and conservative Americans for Tax Reform, called labor unions a multi-billion dollar “slush fund for the left.” Donald Trump even gave away the game by tweeting that the Supreme Court decision meant a “Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!”

It seems very convenient the people responsible for putting Gorsuch on the court – congressional Republicans – are directly benefiting from his rulings; hotbeds of their opponents’ support are being defunded and dismantled. Reducing union revenue cripples their ability to fund the opposition and shrinking their ranks reduces their power as a voting bloc.

Union resources were one of the first targets. It’s imaginable that other Democratic constituencies will be next. With several cases relating to voter suppression and redistricting making their ways up the courts, Republicans stand to bolster their political power by weaponizing the Supreme Court to engage in policy-making and aid them in disenfranchising those likely to vote against them – union workers included.

The attack on what Republicans see as a political apparatus of the Democratic party will have a negative effect on workers in general. Several studies have tied rising income equality to a decline in union membership. AFSCME Local 3299 president Kathryn Lybarger released a statement claiming the ruling was “an extreme case of judicial activism that will normalize wage theft, income inequality, discrimination, workplace violence, and other labor abuses.”

Ensuring the court is stacked with conservatives allows Republicans in Congress to pass bills that benefit themselves but would otherwise be overturned by the court. Democrats could take back both chambers and the White House in a few years, but it will take decades to recover from the damage Republicans are unleashing in the courtroom.

Of course, one can argue that a resulting left-leaning Supreme Court could be similarly wielded to diminish the conservative base. But it’s hard to make that case when progressive Supreme Court rulings have led to the legalization of abortion, the ability to marry spouses of your choice and the empowerment of labor unions – all of which are now backed by a large majority of the publi.

The Janus decision shows that Republicans are willing to abuse their power and turn the Supreme Court into a tool that does not interpret law by court precedent, but rather to fit their party platform.

Even more so, it shows they are willing to let everyday Americans, like those employed by UCLA, continue to be caught in the crossfire of Washington politics.

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Opinion columnist

Smoot is an Opinion columnist.


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  • Man with Axe

    It’s worth noting that the Gorsuch seat was previously held by Antonin Scalia, so the Gorsuch appointment did not change the ideological make-up of the court. Furthermore, it was Harry Reid and the Democrats who first eliminated the filibuster for judges, giving the Republicans cover for doing the same with Gorsuch. And the Democrats, as far back as 1992, had expressed their view that a Supreme Court appointment in a presidential election year should not receive a vote. So let’s not let the hypocrisy levels get too high.

    As for public sector unions, they are not an unbridled good for society or even for their members. If the (potential) members thought the union was so important they would not need to be compelled by law to support it. They would do so voluntarily, as they already do (or choose not to do) in 28 right-to-work states.

    It is true, as you admit, that the compelled payment of dues by non-members is a boon to Democratic politicians. The union collects the dues, makes huge contributions to the political campaigns of Democrats, who, once elected, sign sweetheart deals with those unions, forcing taxpayers to pay excessive wages and benefits. It’s a win-win for the unions and the politicians, and a loss for the taxpayers. The classic example is Illinois, about to go bankrupt because of excessively generous union contracts. California is not much better.

    As for “weaponizing” the Supreme Court: What progressives fear is allowing the voters to decide how we are going to live. The examples you mention, abortion and gay marriage, were approved by the voters in only a small minority of states, and had to be forced on everyone else by the Court. How is that democracy? How is that constitutional?

    • harpospeaks

      Your last paragraph is wrong. The author is pointing out that the majority of voters have come around to approve of gay marriage. You’re wrong that Illinois went bankrupt over union contracts and California was brought back from the brink of disaster by years of an incompetent governor named Arnold fixed by the Democratic governor Jerry Brown so your facts incorrect. Also we have certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by the majority. You know about those? Called “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” Remember them? The majority can stay out of marriage, abortion and stop trying to legislate their morality. That’s not the USA. Understand this, when you go too far when you win, you create a backlash and anger the other side and you will lose in the long run. SCOTUS too far to the right will send the country to left. Ask FDR when SCOTUS continued to declare minimum wage laws unconstitutional.

      • Man with Axe

        You might be right that by now (not at the time of Obergefell) that a majority approve of gay marriage. Who knows? In most states they didn’t get a chance to vote on it. Where they did, the substantial majority of states (almost all) voted against it. That does not mean it’s a bad idea. Just that the process (court decision) was not democratic. Why did Illinois go into financial difficulty? Because of overly generous pensions for public workers that were never funded when the money was there to do so. More than 63,000 government employees earn six-figure salaries. If Jerry Brown has “fixed” California’s issues it was at the price of such high taxes that except for foreign immigration California is bleeding population. Illinois has put itself into a position that will require draconian tax increases, driving business and high-earners out of the state.

        The “inalienable rights” you mention (actually “unalienable”) are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and as such are not considered law. But in the Constitution, the 5th and 14th amendments guarantee that no one will be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. But this is irrelevant to the issues of marriage and abortion, on which the Constitution is silent. Instead, the powers not given to the federal government (which don’t include marriage or abortion) are left by the 10th Amendment to the states or to the people. So it is, as it has always been, the proper province of the states to determine what rights people have and what powers the government will have over these issues. You might like or not like what a state decides, but at least you can then move to a state where they do things they way you do like. When the US Sp Ct rules we all have to do x, then people who don’t like x have nowhere to go.

        Your warning about a “SCOTUS too far to the right” is exactly on point, but the opposite is true. Since FDR and the Wickard v. Filburn case, the Warren court in the 1960s with Griswold v. Connecticut, followed by Roe, Lawrence v. Kansas, and Obergefell, the court has prompted a backlash by swinging so far to the left, according extraordinary powers to the federal government and adding “rights” that the framers wouldn’t have imagined.