Janus (Part 2): Get ready to defend your freedom

Editor of The Stand
Part 2 of 2

(March 7, 2018) — So now what? Depending on what you read, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision against unions coming this June will either shrink, cripple or destroy unions, or maybe even end upward mobility in America.

But here’s a bold prediction: it all backfires.

The history of unions in America is one of continual adversity. It began with the assault and murder of labor leaders, and evolved into union-suppressing laws and court decisions like Janus. Unions have demonstrated they can take a punch. They get knocked down, but they always get back up and always will. Why? In the words of former AFL-CIO leader Thomas Donohue: “The only answer to organized greed is organized labor.”

Here in Washington state and around the country, unions have been preparing for the Janus decision. Especially in the past two years since the similar Friedrichs case was nearly decided, public employee unions have been doing what they do best: organizing. But now, they are focusing those efforts inward to get existing members to commit to sticking together for good wages and strong contracts. And it’s working.

The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO recently hosted a statewide Labor Summit to prepare for the post-Janus world. Union leaders, staffers and stewards from across the state gathered to find out what their peers are doing to keep their unions strong and share best practices for re-engaging members. Local unions say that this work is inspiring their members and staffs. Some report that it’s galvanizing their unions to fight harder and become more militant in the face of these blatantly political attacks.

PERHAPS THAT’S WHY some observers are already predicting the post-Janus world will feature more strikes, more labor chaos, more aggressive union campaigns, and perhaps, an avalanche of labor-backed lawsuits citing everyone’s freshly weaponized First Amendment rights to make each workplace dispute a constitutional controversy.

Two eminent right-wing libertarians who hate unions just as much as Justice Samuel Alito & Friends wrote an amicus brief on Janus urging the Supreme Court not to rule against unions by overturning Abood. Doing so, they wrote, will open the floodgates to lawsuits from public employees objecting to fees they are routinely required to pay by their employers, and from taxpayers objecting to specific government expenditures with which they personally disagree.

One Illinois union, Operating Engineers Local 150, is already planning such legal attacks in anticipation of the Janus decision, and they are likely to inspire others. Shaun Richman of In These Times writes:

(IUOE Local 150) eyes overturning the laws that have made public-sector bargaining illegal in many jurisdictions. It also suggests that workers should be able to opt out of paying for their pension funds’ lobbying expenses and taxpayers opt out of funding municipal lobbyists (the American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, receives indirect support from many taxpayer-funded organizations).

While the gauntlet thrown down by Local 150 was certainly exciting for the few minutes it took to read their fantastical plan to make utter chaos out of a post-Janus world, many readers were left wondering, Are these guys for real?

“We’re going to immediately respond by filing suits to say these laws are unconstitutional,” confirms Local 150 president Jim Sweeney. “Maybe we get screwed again, but we’re going to put corporate powers in a position where they’re forced to explain why workers should only have free speech when it serves them.”

So, file that answer under: Hell to the yes.

MAKE NO MISTAKE, although some unions are being galvanized by this attack, the impending Janus decision is bad news for organized labor, especially those local unions that are slow to respond to the threat.

Well-financed conservative activist groups like Washington’s own Freedom Foundation are champing at the bit to bathe public employees in anti-union propaganda and try to convince them to refuse to pay their fair share. Their ultimate goal, of course, is to drown their employer in the bathtub.

With their typical bluster, the FFers put out a fundraising letter that anticipates a 5-4 decision on Janus and called on their deep-pocketed conservative donors to give even more money “to take advantage” of the result. The FFers’ letter was so brazen that a Janus brief filed by U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former Supreme Court law clerk himself, included the FF letter and advised the justices that “these bold predictions, which can only taint the court’s institutional standing, surely must disconcert any member of the public who cares about the judiciary’s impartiality.”

But here’s the deal. Those silver-tongued tainters at the Freedom Foundation have already been doing this for years. For decades, they’ve bought radio and newspaper ads, flown airplane banners at union events, and even tried sending some assclown dressed up like Santa at Christmastime to stand outside a state government office building and hand out fliers about how to quit the union. And it hasn’t been especially effective.

Washington is the third most unionized state in the country and union membership is growing. In 2017, the state had 584,000 union members, or 18.8 percent of the workforce, according to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington actually has 630,000 workers, or 20.2 percent of the workforce, represented by unions. The difference is 46,000 people who are covered by union contracts but are not union members. That’s a “withdrawal rate” of about 7.3 percent. The average withdrawal rate for all 24 free-bargaining (non-Right to Work) states combined is 7.4%.

The Freedom Foundation’s lack of success in achieving their goal in Washington state — which they openly say is to “defund and discredit” unions — may be why they are so excited about the Janus decision. Until now, the most that Santa could promise public employees was that they could save some of their dues money, not all of it. After Janus, they can promise all of the benefits of the union contract for free.

SO IT’S UP TO UNIONS to engage our members and explain that strong union contracts with good wages and benefits only happened because we, and our predecessors, decided to stick together and have everyone contribute. That’s why workers in Right to Work states get paid less, because they have been divided and defunded.

The simple truth is that no activist court or shady group can take away our freedom to stick together. That’s how we have the strength to demand family-wage jobs, health and retirement benefits, respect at work, and all those other things that Mark Janus has because of a union, but takes for granted. We can only take that away from ourselves by drinking the Kool-Aid served by the so-called Freedom Foundation and its greedy billionaire funders.

Real freedom is about being able to balance life with work. It’s about being able to attend a parent-teacher meeting or help a family member get to a medical appointment. Real freedom is having a voice on the job and being able to speak out without fear of retaliation. Real freedom is working people standing together, negotiating together, and using our strength in numbers to counter their strength in dollars.

If you want to see for yourself how much stronger you and your co-workers can be by standing together, contact a union organizer.

If you are already a union member, steward, staffer or leader, and you want to prepare your union to stay strong post-Janus, contact me.

David Groves is the Editor of The Stand and the Communications Director of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This is the second of a two-part series on the Janus decision and how it will affect the labor movement in Washington state. See Part 1 — Janus: The fix is in at the Supreme Court.

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