Manderson In a torrent of bad news from the Supreme Court, the much expected decision in Janus v. AFSCME eliminating union service fees for public sector workers arrived with a 5-4 thud on the doors of unions and their allies everywhere. There is no way to pretend that the impact will not be devastating in the twenty plus states that allowed such fees to be collected.
The whole point was to deprive unions of financial resources that have been paid as service or agency fees in lieu of actual membership dues, and major public sector unions like AFSCME, SEIU, and CWA will see sharp declines in revenues no matter the huge efforts made to prepare for this decision. This victory in the long war by the right to “defund the left,” as the project has been termed for decades, will impact more than just workers and their public sector workplaces. There will be drastically less money for organizing programs to rebuild unions. In the states that allowed agency fees as well as nationally there will also be fewer resources for other progressive initiatives and organizations that have depended on labor support and contributions. The impact of this decision will be seismic.
Will it be catastrophic is another question entirely? The labor movement has organized and won against the odds in right-to-work states without agency shop. Look at the success of the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas. Look at the recent surge of activity by teachers in Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Arizona – all right-to-work bastions. This can be done in the United States though it takes solid, persistent organizing on a daily basis.
Globally such dues arrangements are largely unknown. Prime Minister Thatcher removed any such arrangements more than two decades ago and even under subsequent Labor Party majorities, unions did not make a priority of restoring this level of union security. Unions are still critical forces in the United Kingdom both at the workplace and increasingly in the community, but they rely on support from their members, and in fact do so increasingly without the benefit of even payroll deduction.
What the Janus decision must mean is an opportunity to rebuild labor unions with new organizing models. This won’t be a discussion of the gig economy or using technology differently. To regain members from fee-payers means a different level of involvement at the roots of the union with the rank-and-file. There will have to be a democratization and reactivation at the membership level. There will have to be more dependence on the membership for everything from organizing to political action. Unions will have to fully become unions again rather than political institutions that represent workers.
Janus is not welcome because it speaks to the class and corporate animus that prevails in these gilded times, but that’s the challenge and opportunity forced on institutional labor now. If we can rise to the task, we’ll all be better for it.