The Entire Public Sector Is About to Be Put on Trial

The Right’s assault on public-sector workers is an assault on the public sector itself.

Naomi Walker May 25, 2017

The Detroit teachers union has staged multiple sick-outs to fight education cuts, protesting a potential pay freeze and roach-infested schools. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

With­in the next year, the Supreme Court is like­ly to rule on the lat­est exis­ten­tial threat to work­ers and their unions: Janus v. AFSCME. Like last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA—a bul­let dodged with Jus­tice Antonin Scalia’s unex­pect­ed death — the Janus case is a bla­tant attack on work­ing peo­ple by right-wing, mon­eyed spe­cial inter­ests who want to take away work­ers’ free­dom to come togeth­er and nego­ti­ate for a bet­ter life. 

For years, the Right has been hammering through state-level “right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill public sector unionism. It would see victory in the Janus case as the coup de grace.

For years, the Right has been ham­mer­ing through state-lev­el right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill pub­lic sec­tor union­ism; it would see vic­to­ry in the Janus case as the coup de grâce. 

Right-to-work laws allow union free rid­ers,” or work­ers who refuse to pay union dues but still enjoy the wages, ben­e­fits and pro­tec­tions the union nego­ti­ates. Not only does this pol­i­cy drain unions of resources to fight on behalf of work­ers, but hav­ing few­er dues-pay­ing mem­bers also spells less clout at the bar­gain­ing table. It becomes much more dif­fi­cult for work­ers to come togeth­er, speak up and get ahead. In the end, right-to-work hits work­ers square­ly in the pay­check. Work­ers in right-to-work states earn less and are less like­ly to have employ­er-spon­sored health­care and pensions. 

As a judge, Neil Gor­such, Scalia’s replace­ment, sided with cor­po­ra­tions 91 per­cent of the time in pen­sion dis­putes and 66 per­cent of the time in employ­ment and labor cas­es. If the court rules in favor of the Janus plain­tiff — an Illi­nois pub­lic sec­tor work­er whose case not to pay union dues is being argued by the right-wing Lib­er­ty Jus­tice Cen­ter and the Nation­al Right to Work Foun­da­tion — then right to work could become the law of the land in the pub­lic sec­tor, weak­en­ing unions and dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduc­ing liv­ing stan­dards for mil­lions of work­ers across the country. 

That’s the Right’s imme­di­ate goal with Janus. Then there are the more insid­i­ous effects. The case is the next step in the Right’s long and unre­lent­ing cam­paign to, as Grover Norquist famous­ly said, shrink gov­ern­ment to the size where I can drag it into the bath­room and drown it in the bath­tub.” The Trump team has made no secret of this goal. Trump advi­sor Steve Ban­non par­rots Norquist, call­ing for the decon­struc­tion of the admin­is­tra­tive state,” and Trump’s bud­get pro­pos­al cuts key fed­er­al and state pro­grams to the quick. Accord­ing to rabid­ly anti-work­er Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er ®, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence indi­cat­ed in a Feb­ru­ary meet­ing with him that Pence was inter­est­ed in a nation­al ver­sion of Walker’s infa­mous Act 10, which elim­i­nat­ed pub­lic sec­tor col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and gut­ted union membership. 

An assault on pub­lic sec­tor work­ers is ulti­mate­ly an assault on the pub­lic sec­tor itself. The Right can strike two blows at once: demo­niz­ing gov­ern­ment and under­min­ing the unions and work­ers who advo­cate for the robust pub­lic ser­vices that com­mu­ni­ties need to thrive. A rul­ing against AFSCME in Janus would dec­i­mate work­ers’ pow­er to nego­ti­ate for vital staffing and fund­ing for pub­lic ser­vices. Across the coun­try, our loved ones will wait longer for essen­tial care when they’re in the hos­pi­tal, our kids will have more crowd­ed class­rooms and few­er after-school pro­grams, and our roads and bridges will fall even deep­er into dis­re­pair. The pro­gres­sive infra­struc­ture in this coun­try, from think tanks to advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions — which depends on the resources and engage­ment of work­ers and their unions — will crumble. 

Pub­lic sec­tor unions are work­ing on build­ing stronger unions, orga­niz­ing new mem­bers and con­nect­ing more deeply with exist­ing mem­bers to stave off the threat posed by Janus. AFSCME alone, where I serve as an assis­tant to the pres­i­dent, has a goal of hav­ing face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions with one mil­lion of its mem­bers before the Supreme Court rules. So far, union lead­ers and activists have talked to more than 616,000 mem­bers about com­mit­ting to be in the union no mat­ter what the court decides. Even so, Janus will make it hard­er for pub­lic sec­tor unions to lead, or even join, fights on social and eco­nom­ic issues that ben­e­fit all work­ers, union or not. And that’s just what the Right wants. 

We need the entire labor and pro­gres­sive move­ments to stand with us and fight for us. We may not sur­vive with­out it — and nor, we fear, will they. 

Nao­mi Walk­er is the assis­tant to the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees, writes the 9 to 5” col­umn for In These Times.
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