A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Supreme Court could gut workers’ unions

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 19, 20 or 21

When Anchorage, Alaska, Mayor Dan Sullivan last month called union dues “slavery,” he was echoing not just the familiar, wrong-headed claims of so-called Right To Work types and extremist Republicans. He also may have foreshadowed a pending decision by a conservative Court that in recent years has seemed too willing to make decisions to benefit corporations at the expense of everyday Americans and their labor unions.

The U.S. Supreme Court this month is expected to rule on a case from Illinois that could damage the labor movement as much as the “Citizens United” and “McCutcheon” rulings hurt democracy.

At a May forum for GOP candidates for Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor, Sullivan was asked about Right To Work laws, which prohibit clauses in labor agreements that provide for the collection of union dues from workers benefiting from the contracts. Such laws are a favorite Right Wing cause, because they deprive unions of funds to function, which decreases workers' power to raise living standards through collective bargaining.

Oddly, the mayor’s seeking higher office in a state that’s one of the country's most unionized states. In Illinois, “Harris v. Quinn” has already been argued before the Court, and as Justices weigh their opinions, labor activists are preparing for the worst, which could be very bad.

“Harris v. Quinn” – Quinn being Gov. Pat Quinn – is a bigger threat than many realize, according to a Service Employees International Union attorney who worked on that union's friend-of-the-court brief.

The Court’s already used the 1st Amendment's free-speech guarantee to declare that “money is speech” and let the cash flow in “McCutcheon” and “Citizens United.” But SEIU lawyer Nicole Berner said the Justices may use the amendment's right of free association to grant the Right To Work forces’ demand: To bar unions from collecting money – even money just for contract bargaining and administration – from their own members.

If the Supreme Court rules against organized labor, the Court would turn all 50 states into Right To Work (for Less) states where unions are prohibited from negotiating contracts calling for dues deductions – states where unions are weakened, wages are lower and workers have fewer “rights.”

The Supreme Court would be saying “our whole collective bargaining system violates the 1st Amendment,” Berner said.

Her warning came at a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, about a week after Sullivan’s remark. Although Berner’s panel discussed the 1st Amendment – which guarantees freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to seek redress for grievances – comments turned to campaign finance and the Supreme Court.

“The Right To Work Committee and home-care attendants in Illinois [a few who objected to a majority vote to organize and affiliate with SEIU] said that by charging a fee for administering the contract, the union was violating their 1st Amendment right of free association,” Berner said. “This decision would weaken the entire labor movement and the whole progressive community, because of the strength labor provides.”

Lower courts dismissed the case, saying the Right To Work committee had no standing to sue because the payments didn't hurt that group. But the Supreme Court took the case, and in the next few weeks could eviscerate workers’ unions.

Dues are the financial means by which member organizations share common costs, of course. In the case of labor unions, dues help underwrite the expenses of representation – bargaining and enforcing contracts – that achieves better pay, hours and working conditions.

For a Court so chummy with Big Business, that may not matter.

What matters to workers whose unions help give them the legal power to bargain collectively instead of singly is what could happen with an adverse – even hostile – decision.

Anticipating that the majority of the Justices could rule against unions, Berner told Press Associates Inc. that SEIU already is considering new ways workers could organize.

If the Court rules against collecting dues, labor would have to rely on voluntary contributions and that usually results in drastically falling revenues. (For example, public-sector unions in Wisconsin saw their revenues fall by half after Right Wing Republican Gov. Scott Walker successfully got the GOP legislature to cut off dues collections.) Preparing for such a worst-case scenario, SEIU says it leaves unions an alternative: Becoming a membership organization like the NAACP “where it could build power and people in the broad sense,” Berner said.

“This case is pushing us faster in that direction,” she said. “We have to figure out a different way to be strong.”

[PICTURED: Graphic from Alliance for Justice.]

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