A new rallying point

George Gresham | 7/5/2018, 10:25 a.m.
The last session of the Supreme Court produced a host of decisions that turned back the clock on social, political ...
George Gresham Contributed

The last session of the Supreme Court produced a host of decisions that turned back the clock on social, political and economic justice. Among these damaging blows, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is perhaps the most consequential for working people and our democracy.

The Court declared unconstitutional the laws that require public employees to pay fair-share agency fees in lieu of joining the union. Some 41 years ago, the Court ruled unanimously that because all workers benefited from collective bargaining, those who don’t pay dues should be required to pay a share of the collective bargaining costs. In writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Alioto Jr. said that requiring fair-share fees violates free speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Since the notorious Citizens United decision, which permits unlimited corporate campaign spending, the justices have used the First Amendment to justify multiple corporate excesses.

The Janus decision is the climax of a decades-long assault on unions. For years, the corporate elites have had public unions in their crosshairs. Their next target will be unionized workers in the private sector.

The decision came just weeks after the Court, in Epic Systems v. Lewis, weakened employees’ ability to band together in class-action lawsuits. And in May, the president signed three executive orders making it easier to fire government workers while weakening the role of their unions.

The corporate bosses who are pulling the strings behind the scenes include the Koch Brothers, the Walton family, the Mercers and the DeVos family, including the secretary of education and champion of privatization, Betsy DeVos. Their goal is to defund, defang and defeat unions, the major countervailing force against corporate excess and greed and a major force in the Democratic Party. The president of our nation tipped his hand when he tweeted after learning of the Janus decision, “…Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats.”

Janus was never about free speech. Neither public nor private union workers are required to fund their unions’ political or public policy activities. But we should not despair. On the contrary, there is much that should encourage us. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands marched in 700 cities across the nation against the administration’s heartless policies of family separation and detention. A week earlier, tens of thousands marched, rallied and took part in civil disobedience to shine a spotlight on the shameful and widespread poverty in our nation.

Earlier this year, public school teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia marched out of classrooms in protest, although they are not legally allowed to strike. Their courageous actions, staunch unity and broad community support won higher wages for them and, in some instances, for other public workers.

These workers made common cause with community residents, demanding restoration of funding cuts, upgraded facilities and more school supplies such as textbooks and computers. So it is with 1199 and other health care unions. We organize and lobby for greater funding not only to improve the lives of workers but also to provide quality care for all.

We also continue to stress that the division between our workers and our communities is false. They are one and the same. When we union members fight for ourselves, we are also fighting for our communities, for universal health care, quality education, jobs with a living wage, clean air and water, immigrant rights and social justice for all.

Janus is an assault on workers and communities. Workers throughout the nation are angry that despite the growing economy and skyrocketing corporate profits, wages and benefits remain stagnant. Public workers, in particular, are victims of government austerity and cutbacks that deprive them of the resources they need to care for their students, patients and all who depend on essential public services.

In anticipation of the Janus decision, many of our unions launched much-needed internal organizing campaigns to ask members to recommit to the union. Unions are also stepping up their external organizing campaigns.

We must treat this decision as a new day and a rallying point. We must expand our vision and develop ways to deepen our ties with our allies. The public approval of unions reached a 14-year high last year.

We also should not lose sight of the fact that a growing number of public workers are women of color. These women also are the leaders of the groundswell of protests now sweeping the nation. It’s time for us all to show up, agitate, organize and march, especially from now through November, when our votes will help us take back our democracy.

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.