The Anti-Union Janus Ruling Is Going to Hit Black Women the Hardest

Miles Kampf-Lassin June 27, 2018

Public sector unions have long been a source of economic power for African-American women. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Today, John Roberts’ Supreme Court hand­ed down its much-antic­i­pat­ed rul­ing in Janus v. AFSCME, a deci­sion that is poised to defang pub­lic sec­tor unions and cur­tail the pow­er of an already belea­guered U.S. labor move­ment. Because pub­lic-sec­tor unions dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly empow­er and pro­tect African-Amer­i­can women, this class of hyper-exploit­ed work­ers is poised to be hit hard­est by the anti-union ruling.

At stake in the case was whether unions would be able to con­tin­ue col­lect­ing dues from non-mem­bers who work under col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments. This prece­dent, estab­lished under the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Edu­ca­tion case, has been instru­men­tal in help­ing unions fund their oper­a­tions and rep­re­sent work­ers, even under an increas­ing­ly hos­tile polit­i­cal cli­mate for labor.

Today’s rul­ing means that all pub­lic-sec­tor unions could essen­tial­ly oper­ate under right-to-work,” depriv­ing labor of crit­i­cal fund­ing, increas­ing the prob­lem of free rid­er­ship” and poten­tial­ly dec­i­mat­ing union membership.

Unions are brac­ing for the after­math of the rul­ing. And main­stream media out­lets, which do not gen­er­al­ly devote much ink to labor sto­ries, have high­light­ed the case in head­line after head­line. Yet what many fail to men­tion is that Janus would be par­tic­u­lar­ly dev­as­tat­ing for one group in par­tic­u­lar: African-Amer­i­can women.

Pub­lic sec­tor unions have long been a source of eco­nom­ic pow­er for African-Amer­i­can women, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly rep­re­sent­ed in their ranks. A March brief from Celine McNi­cholas and Janelle Jones at the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (EPI) shows that African-Amer­i­can women have the high­est share of work­ers in the pub­lic sec­tor — 17.7 per­cent, equal­ing about 1.5 mil­lion workers.

The pub­lic sec­tor pro­vides job oppor­tu­ni­ties for African-Amer­i­can work­ers, and women espe­cial­ly, at a rate much high­er than the pri­vate sec­tor. In 2015, African-Amer­i­can women made up 10 per­cent of gov­ern­ment work­ers, com­pared to just 6 per­cent in pri­vate-sec­tor employment.

As pub­lic-sec­tor union mem­bers, African-Amer­i­can women ben­e­fit from high­er wages, more secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty on the job, and more equal­i­ty in the work­place. They face small­er wage dis­par­i­ties across racial lines than their coun­ter­parts in the pri­vate sec­tor and ben­e­fit from stronger affir­ma­tive action laws. Research by Janelle Jones at the EPI has shown that, on aver­age, black women make $17.92 in the pub­lic sec­tor, and $13.08 in the pri­vate sector.”

This [deci­sion] marks a direct attack on Black women get­ting a fair shot in our econ­o­my,” says Ali­cia Garza, direc­tor of spe­cial projects at the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA) and co-founder of Black Lives Mat­ter. We make up near­ly one-fifth of pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers, and already face an uphill bat­tle in mak­ing strides in every sin­gle work­place. At a time when our pow­er is being active­ly under­mined, we must do every­thing we can to grow our power.”

Union­ized pub­lic-sec­tor jobs have also pro­vid­ed a path­way to the mid­dle class for African-Amer­i­can women, espe­cial­ly those who live in major met­ro­pol­i­tan areas with large gov­ern­ment work­forces, such as Atlanta and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Attacks on pub­lic-sec­tor unions such as the Janus case — which was backed by a car­tel of right-wing think tanks, bil­lion­aire investors and cor­po­rate inter­ests — are real­ly attacks on the rank-and-file work­ers who make up union mem­ber­ship. Wages are typ­i­cal­ly 3.1 per­cent less in right-to-work states — mean­ing work­ers end up earn­ing $1,558 less a year. And the work­ers who will be most impact­ed are the African-Amer­i­can women.

On aver­age, African-Amer­i­can women have to work sev­en months longer to receive the same pay as white men, and they con­tin­ue to be over-rep­re­sent­ed in low-wage jobs. They also work more hours than white women, and are paid less than white men at every lev­el of education.

As a result, African-Amer­i­can women are some of the most pre­car­i­ous work­ers in the coun­try. Union rep­re­sen­ta­tion has pro­vid­ed a lad­der to eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty for scores of these work­ers, but if pub­lic-sec­tor unions see their pow­er and mem­ber­ship decline as a result of Janus, as is expect­ed, it will be African-Amer­i­can women who will face the brunt of the neg­a­tive consequences. 

This deci­sion is a blow to every work­ing per­son that has ever felt unheard, unseen or hurt at the hands of unchecked pow­er,” says Ai-jen Poo, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the NDWA. By cut­ting work­ers’ col­lec­tive orga­niz­ing pow­er, espe­cial­ly that of women, we’re increas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to wage theft, sex­u­al harass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion. We should be expand­ing people’s rights at the work­place, not per­pet­u­at­ing vulnerability.”

The cor­po­rate inter­ests bankrolling Janus would wel­come the sight of pub­lic-sec­tor union mem­ber­ship plum­met­ing — this has been their goal all along. By starv­ing unions of fund­ing and resources, they will be more capa­ble of has­ten­ing a race to the bot­tom on wages, ben­e­fits and work­ing conditions.

Anti-union groups that pushed for the Janus deci­sion, such as the Lib­er­ty Jus­tice Cen­ter and Nation­al Right to Work Foun­da­tion, have argued that it will restore work­ers’ rights” and pro­tect the First Amend­ment. But the real­i­ty is that work­ers across the coun­try, and African-Amer­i­can women par­tic­u­lar­ly, will be pro­found­ly harmed.

Through­out U.S. his­to­ry, African-Amer­i­can women have endured some of the most rep­re­hen­si­ble treat­ment this coun­try has to offer. Today’s Janus deci­sion almost sure­ly means they will face more indig­ni­ties and ills as a result. Upend­ing this new sta­tus quo and bring­ing jus­tice to the most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers in our soci­ety is the chal­lenge now con­fronting the labor move­ment. To meet it, unions will need to orga­nize — and fight — like nev­er before.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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