We are living in a second Gilded Age in America, where the richest 1 percent now hold 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, more than the entire bottom 90 percent combined. Chief executive pay is about 271 times that of the average worker, compared to 20 times in 1965.
The one mitigating force is labor unions. In the decades following World War II, the middle class enjoyed unprecedented growth and prosperity because more people were able to come together in strong unions. They were able to build power in numbers and negotiate with their employers for a fair return on their work.
On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a case engineered by anti-worker special interests to threaten the ability of public service workers, such as teachers, firefighters and corrections officers, to stand together in a union.
At specific issue in this case is the right of public service unions to collect “fair share fees.” Workers in a unionized shop have the right to join or not join the union. But because even non-members benefit from the better wages and working conditions that the union negotiates, they contribute a fair share fee to help cover the cost of representation. This is common sense. If you go out to dinner with your friends, everyone kicks in to pay the check, even if you didn’t get to pick the restaurant.
The plaintiff and his supporters argue that this eminently fair arrangement is a violation of free speech rights. Their implausible claim is that public sector unions don’t bargain contracts, they just lobby and campaign. This is a distortion and weaponization of the First Amendment. By law, no one is required to join the union. No one is coerced or compelled to spend their money on political candidates or causes. Nothing in this case will change that.
If the Supreme Court embraces this bogus First Amendment argument, it would smash precedent. The legality of fair share fees has been repeatedly affirmed by lower courts and was enshrined more than 40 years ago in a unanimous Supreme Court decision in a case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
A ruling for the plaintiff would also be a breach of federalism, normally a cherished judicial principle on the right, by mandating a one-size-fits-all solution for an inherently local concern. Under the status quo, each state can determine how public employers and employees will engage, a system that has largely fostered labor peace.
The amicus briefs filed on both sides are telling. AFSCME has the backing of an eclectic group of libertarian legal scholars, Nobel economists and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name just a few. Meanwhile, it’s the usual suspects, including right-wing think tanks funded by the Kochs and other corporate interests, weighing in on the plaintiff’s behalf.
But that stands to reason because theirs is a politically-motivated case designed to pulverize unions and rig the rules of the economy even more in favor of the privileged and powerful. To truly understand their agenda, don’t look at their legal briefs. Just read their fundraising appeals. In a 2016 letter, the head of the State Policy Network declared that its objective is to “defund and defang” public employee unions like AFSCME, in order to “deliver the mortal blow” to what it calls the “American left” and “permanently break its stranglehold on our society.”
The forces behind Janus are driven not by fidelity to the Constitution, but by ideological animus. Their goal is to concentrate wealth in as few hands as possible by undermining the freedom of working people to make a decent living and support their families. Public service workers don’t get rich doing their jobs, but they do keep our communities strong. They plow your roads, pick up your garbage and answer your 911 calls. They work in your schools, your courthouses and your health clinics.
When they go to the bargaining table, they are advocating not just for themselves, but for provisions with universal benefits, such as better protective gear for first responders and safe nursing staff levels. For all they do, public service workers deserve basic respect and a fair hearing in the Supreme Court. If facts, law and precedent matter, Janus v. AFSCME will be decided in their favor.
Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union of 1.6 million public service workers.