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, February 14, 2016

Preparing for the Supreme Court’s anti-labor ‘Friedrichs’ ruling

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 11, 12 or 13

Supreme Court Justices last month during arguments in “Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association” hinted that they’ll rule against unions. In the most important labor case in years, the court’s conservative majority seemed to lean toward deciding that government workers cannot be required to pay fees to the unions elected and required to represent them.

Justice Anthony Kennedy – sometimes a “swing” vote agreeing with progressives – commented, “Many teachers strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size [but] must nevertheless subsidize the union.”

Really? Many? Very doubtful.

“A decision for the plaintiffs in ‘Friedrichs’ would tell the nation’s 6.2 million unionized state, city, county and school-district employees that they can enjoy the benefits offered by their unions without having to pay for them,” wrote Steven Greenhouse, a Russell Sage Foundation researcher.

The case pits a few teachers – backed by the anti-worker National Right to Work Committee – against the state of California, its teachers unions, the Obama administration, and labor allies.

The issue is whether laws that let unions representing public workers collect “agency fees” to pay only for contract negotiations and enforcement violate workers’ free-speech rights.

Plaintiffs seek to overturn the Court’s unanimous 1977 ruling that said that public-employee unions can charge non-members agency fees to cover non-political expenses.

The argument is that making people pay for services they receive violates their freedom of speech because unions represent working people and bargain with wealth and power. Therefore unions engage in “political activity,” so making people pay for unions’ services is “compelled political speech.”

An adverse ruling would hurt labor; first public unions, soon everyone else. Now, when a public-employee union negotiates a contract, even workers who aren’t union members get pay increases and other negotiated benefits. Further, unions are required by law to represent all workers covered by a union contract, even non-members.

“No one is forced to join a union,” said Robert Creamer, author of the book “Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win.”

“The provisions in labor agreements with state unions in many states require that after state workers have democratically chosen a bargaining agent, that employees who do not wish to join the union should pay a ‘fair share’ [agency fee] contribution to support the portions of the union’s operations that negotiate and administer the provisions of the labor contract from which they are benefiting,” he continued. “They are not required to contribute to any of the political activities of the union. This is the same principle we use at all levels of democratic government. Once an election is held for mayor and the city council, you can’t refuse to pay taxes to support the functions of the government from which you benefit.”

Also, of course, is the hypocrisy. If the real objection is that public-sector unions use whatever clout they can muster to influence politicians, why doesn’t that apply to businesses? The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling freed business to make virtually unlimited campaign contributions, so if that’s permissible, why should workers’ organizations be forbidden from attempting to do the same?

For workers, the temptation, especially in hard times, is to believe one can get something for nothing. But weaker unions result in lower pay. So preparing for the worst is vital. Some ideas:

* A proactive approach is internal organizing, convincing members of the bargaining unit to join the union, be active, and share the burdens as well as the rewards;

* A low road, some say, is for local unions to publicize members of bargaining units who choose not to help cover the costs of negotiating, like a Michigan Auto Workers local does;

* Public unions could partner with private-employee unions. As much as AFSCME and the AFT are important, SEIU and the CWA also represent public employees;

* The most interesting idea may be taking any free-speech decision to open up First Amendment challenges to lift government prohibitions on strikes, too common in many public-employee workplaces.

Public-employee unions are covered by state laws. That means their employers approve laws about the labor force. And though everyday workers have no First Amendment protections in private workplaces (because it applies to government), when government IS the employer, the boss cannot restrict free speech, assembly, etc. Work stoppages would logically then be allowable.

“Since unions – and collective bargaining – are the major weapons everyday people have to raise their wages,” Creamer said, the “assault on unions is a direct attack on the middle class and its future in America.”

[PICTURED: Pro-union supporters rallied outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 11, when conservative Justices' comments seemed to indicate opposition to members of public-union bargaining units having to share in the costs of achieving the pay and benefits unions negotiate for them, from]

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