An attack on public sector unions is an attack on democracy

An attack on public sector unions is an attack on democracy
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This morning the Supreme Court announced their decision in the public sector unions case, Janus vs AFSCME. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, acted as the deciding vote in a ruling that could drastically decrease the membership of major public sector unions.

At a time when non-standard work arrangements and technology are rapidly changing the economy, and more people are engaging in unprotected “gig” work, the need for robust labor protections is stronger than ever. Unions and collective bargaining are critically important to building a more just, equitable and sustainable workplace and society. Today, with a favorable Supreme Court, employers are winning significant victories against workers who organize.

Public sector unions reduce inequality, increase democracy, advance the interests of working people, especially women and people of color, and ensure high-quality government services. Addressing growing inequality is one of the most significant challenges our nation faces. The level of inequality in America corresponds, to a remarkable extent, with the rise and fall of unionization. When union membership falls, inequality worsens.


Right now, less than 7 percent of private sector workers are unionized. In the public sector, 34 percent of workers are unionized, which translates to 7.2 million unionized people in the U.S. In New York City and New York State, about 70 percent of public sector workers are unionized, double the national level.  Not surprisingly, the right wing is targeting public sector unions with heightened animus.

At its heart, an attack on public sector unions is a threat to democracy. Do we want to have a society and economy that serves the interests of the few and wealthy or one that addresses the needs of the overwhelming majority? These attacks are also a transparent attempt to undermine the progress of women and people color. In the 1960s the energy of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements drove the rise of public sector unionism, which brought collective bargaining to that sector, transforming the lives of millions.

Public sector unions are integral to establishing high-quality public services, including education, health care, first responder emergency services, electricity, transportation and more. They ensure that people are adequately trained and compensated, and provided vitally essential whistleblower protections, job flexibility and career advancement opportunities. Attacks on public sector unions are attacks on high-quality public services that will be become increasingly privatized, causing people to lose necessary protections. Democracy can withstand this challenge but only if people who work are organized, have a voice, and can fight for a more equitable distribution of power and wealth.

The conservative organizations supporting the Janus Supreme Court case have been very clear about their goal. They are determined to destroy unions and stop the most significant obstacle they face to concentrating wealth, privatizing public services and schools and deregulating worker and environmental protections, and Janus is not the only victory anti-union forces have had this year.

In May, the Supreme Court gutted workers’ rights to act collectively to battle wage theft and discrimination, ruling for the first time that people may not band together to challenge violations of federal labor laws. Writing for the majority, Gorsuch, said that the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act trumps the National Labor Relations Act and that employees who sign agreements to arbitrate claims must do so on an individual basis — and may not band together to enforce claims of wage and hour violations. With the appointment of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, corporations and others have been able to win critical successes in their campaign against working people.

Despite the current unfavorable make-up of the Supreme Court, there are promising signs of hope. The Pew Research Center just released a new survey finding that 55 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of unions and more Americans view a decline in union membership negatively rather than positively. Unions can use Janus as an organizing opportunity to talk to their members and the public about the importance of unions in the workplace and society.

From the teachers strikes across the country, to the fight for $15, to the staff of the New Yorker, people around the country are standing together in new and creative ways to fight for fair wages and stronger protections. Public opinion is on the side of people in unions, this is a good opportunity for unions to take that political will and fight back.

Lara Skinner is the associate director of The Worker Institute at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.