Column: Dealt a body blow by the Supreme Court, unions ponder: Where do we go from here?

Demonstrators march through downtown Los Angeles during a 2017 Labor Day protest organized by the SEIU in support of a $15 hourly wage.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday undermining the ability of public-sector unions to raise funds from workers, two words were undoubtedly on the lips of union leaders and many of their members: What now?

“It’s a bad day today,” said Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, “but the book on organized labor by no means is closed.” The public employee union, which has 1.3 million active members, was the chief defendant in Janus vs. AFSCME, the case on which the court ruled.

The court’s decision presents public unions with an immediate problem and a panoply of broader issues.


We’ve got to start laying the framework for the future. And unions need to be talking about the fact that unions mean economic justice in this country.

— Lee Saunders, AFSCME president

The immediate problem is one of resources: The court’s conservative majority declared unconstitutional the fees charged nonmember workers for contract negotiation and enforcement services. That threatens to turn millions of public union members into “free riders” — they’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of union bargaining even if they pay nothing. The unions, meanwhile, are stripped of revenues they need to conduct business.

In California, between 25% and 40% of public employees pay the “fair share” or “agency” fees outlawed by the court on Wednesday. These are fees paid by nonunion members to cover contract negotiations and other nonpolitical activities. State payroll officials say they’ll cease deducting the fees from workers’ paychecks within a few weeks, costing public employee unions millions of dollars in annual revenue.

“We do have a practical issue,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me after the ruling was handed down. “But we’ve been preparing for this since 2015, in terms of member engagement and around community involvement.”

That’s a pointer to the broader issues faced by public-sector unions and their private-sector cousins alike: how to demonstrate their continued relevance for a working class that has shunned union membership at ever-increasing rates even as their working conditions deteriorate and their wages stagnate.

For more than three decades, a steady increase in public-sector membership has compensated for the decline of private-sector unions, to the point where overall membership is now split about fifty-fifty. But the Janus decision threatens to reverse the public-sector gains.


Public unions have been preparing for a post-Janus world for several years, as the case and others like it made their way through the federal courts. AFSCME has been doing intense outreach to its members, conducting more than 900,000 one-on-one meetings in recent years to talk up the benefits of union membership, Saunders told me.

“There’s no question that some people will view this as an opportunity to drop out and receive the same level of benefits that active members are receiving,” Saunders says. “That’s why it’s so important that we have those individual conversations.”

The anti-union right wing also has been girding for war. According to Bloomberg, the ferociously anti-labor Freedom Foundation says it’s preparing to send a corps of canvassers around the West Coast to urge public employees to quit their unions. Bloomberg names a familiar list of right-wing political funds backing the foundation, including the Sarah Scaife Foundation; the Koch network; the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, associated with the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; and the State Policy Network.

Even before the Janus ruling, it was becoming clear that organized labor needed to rethink its role and its strategies to fit the modern political landscape. Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been trying to undermine the virtues of collective action among the working class.

“The right wing has weaponized the word ‘freedom’ so that people think the only way they have freedom is to do something alone, that the solidarity and unity of doing something together, which is how working people really have power, is not ‘freedom,’ ” Weingarten says. “But what we’re seeing is that people get that they need to work together in order to accomplish what is impossible alone.”

She points to the recent wave of teacher strikes in such red states as West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and Oklahoma — grass-roots collective actions provoked by a shocking decline in working conditions, educational standards and teacher pay in public schools.

The grandmother of those walkouts, so to speak, was the eight-day Chicago teachers strike of 2012. The strikers retained popular support because “it was not simply a strike for more money, tenure, or a better evaluation system,” veteran labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan observed in his 2014 book, “Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.” “It worked because a lot of people saw it as a strike in favor of good old-fashioned public schools.”

Other successful labor organizations also are placing social and economic justice issues in the forefront of their campaigns. Geoghegan points to National Nurses United, which grew out of the California Nurses Assn., which militates not merely for better pay but for “a bigger say in how they do their work — in how they care for patients, in nurse-to-patient ratios, in how long patients are allowed to stay hospitalized.”

Other effective campaigns are directed not simply at employers but at the political system. The minimum wage strikes among fast-food workers launched by Fight for 15 “did nothing to move McDonald’s,” Geoghegan writes. “But these losses put the issue at the top of [President] Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address.” And the campaign certainly prompted states and municipalities all over the country to raise the minimum wage after decades of stagnation.

One imperative is to bring the Democratic Party and the labor movement back together. They’ve been drifting apart for decades, to the disadvantage of each.

Consider the bombshell congressional primary result in New York’s borough of Queens: The machine Democrat, 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley, had the endorsement of 24 labor unions (including AFSCME and the New York affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers). His opponent, the insurgent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had none — but she did have “a working family’s agenda, about higher wages and protection for immigrants and good schools,” Weingarten says. And she trounced Crowley 57% to 43%.

The Democrats’ inattention to working-class concerns created a vacuum that the right wing gladly filled, Weingarten says. “Voting, public education and the labor movement are what give regular folks power.” They’re also the prime targets for right wing attacks, with Republicans managing the legislative arsenal.

The gulf between the Democratic Party and organized labor, which should be natural allies, also reflects the impact of big money in our electoral system, Weingarten says. Thanks to our porous campaign finance laws, and especially after the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, the floodgates are open for corporate campaign contributions.

“The Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party started catering to people with money because they felt they had no choice in order to run campaigns,” she says. For Democrats, “that created in some instances a real conflict between the hedge funders and working families.”

The biggest obstacle faced by labor may be the dismal state of laws protecting collective bargaining. These generally date from the 1930s, when economic conditions drove a rise in union membership that lasted into the 1950s, when it began a precipitous decline.

Today, union campaigns come under the jurisdiction of the ’30s-era National Labor Relations Board, which can take years to render a verdict in unfair labor practices cases even in the best circumstances, and has to bend with the partisan winds at all times.

Geoghegan advocates making union membership a civil right, like protection from discrimination on the basis of race, age or gender. Then an employer who attempts union-busting could be haled into court and face an injunction against demoting or firing union organizers, followed by a trial and possibly heavy damages. As Geoghegan observes, racial discrimination hasn’t disappeared from the workplace and employers don’t hire expensive law firms to discriminate against black employees — but they do hire professional union busters to discourage labor organizing.

Obviously such changes in the law won’t happen as long as Republicans command all three branches of government. But conservatives have played a long game and ultimately succeeded. Those agitating for social and economic justice need to do the same.

“Obviously we’re not going to get labor law reform like that passed right now,” Saunders acknowledges. “But we’ve got to start laying the framework for the future. And unions need to be talking about the fact that unions mean economic justice in this country.”

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