WORCESTER, Mass. – Hundreds of people rallied February 26 outside of City Hall, part of a nationwide series of demonstrations, in protest of an expected anti-labor Supreme Court ruling that could cripple public sector unions. Virtually everyone who spoke, however, argued that those pushing the case in the Supreme Court had a bigger goal: to undermine the entire labor movement, as well as, potentially, democratic rights themselves.
“Some people in this country have made unions the enemy,” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, the son of a steelworker, said. “You’re the only people left, the unions, that protect the workers. You are the protectors. If some businesses had their way, they’d pay everybody nine dollars an hour.”
“There are powerful forces,” Central Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Joseph Carlson said, “that if they had their way, we’d be down on our knees begging for the crumbs that they might want to give us. But we’re here to tell them that’s unacceptable. We all understand that collectively we bargain, collectively we demand our health insurance, collectively we demand better wages, but individually we beg.”
These “powerful forces” are in the orbit of the Republican Party and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, the right-wing organization, aimed at crippling the labor movement, that is sponsoring the case the Supreme Court is set to decide. The Committee receives millions of dollars in donations from the Koch Brothers, the Walton family, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and other anti-union, Republican organizations. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured by these groups into the effort to undermine the labor movement.
Currently, workers in unionized public sector shops are able to opt out of joining the union. For example, a public school teacher, even though his or her school system might be organized by one of the two main teachers’ unions, the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers, can decide not to join. However, in many states, unions are able to charge a fee that is deducted from the employee’s paycheck. This fee covers activities that the union engages in on behalf of the worker, including lobbying for pay raises, health benefits, and other things directly benefiting that worker. The worker, however, does not have to pay full union dues, because he or she is not required to pay for union activities that do not directly benefit him or her.
Under current law, based upon the 1977 ruling by the Supreme Court in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the decision as to whether unions are allowed to charge for services rendered is left up to the states. Currently, 23 states, including Massachusetts, allow labor unions to charge the fee, generally called an agency fee or fair share fee. The current case, Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, seeks to reverse the 1977 ruling.
Allowing workers to opt out of the fee would cause what is in economics called the “free rider” problem, which happens when people are given the choice not to pay for good or service, a “public good.” An individual might decide to forego paying the fee, and still enjoy benefits. However, when enough individuals do this, it becomes impossible to produce the service. In this case, unions would be crippled as workers try to save as much money as possible in an economy that increasingly pushes their wages downward (though, as studies show, wages are pushed downward to a much lesser extent in a union environment). In an era of ideological attacks on unions, crippling austerity budgets, and the devastating effects of the GOP/Trump tax cuts for the rich soon to be felt, public sector unions would likely be hobbled by the decision.
Much of the argumentation in the Janus case tend to focus on unions as political actors: according to the plaintiffs, unions affect public policy, and a member forced to pay a fee to the union might be forced to support a political cause she disagrees with. But while unions engage in political activity in defense of their member’s – and much of the time, all working people’s – welfare, no money collected from non-members is allowed to be spent on politics or public policy issues. The fee only covers contract negotiations and other actions directly affecting the worker.
Union advocates argue that, while no non-member pays for political activity, the right-wing is trying to weaken labor to undermine its pro-working people political activity. Traditionally, labor has been a staunch ally of the Democratic Party and movements for social justice, and the labor movement has generally been considered the reason for the stability of middle class life in the twentieth century.
“America needs union jobs, and these jobs help strengthen our communities,” said Zena Link, a teacher at
Worcester’s North High School, as well as an activist member of the local teachers’ union, the Educational Association of Worcester.
Unionization generally leads to higher incomes for workers. Many economists argue that workers with higher incomes tend to spend more money locally, which has a ripple effect, bolstering local businesses, the economy, and reducing the poverty that breeds social problems.
Massachusetts Senate President Harriette Chandler, of Worcester, told the rally, “The extremists want to divide you because they know that you have the power in numbers to fight for more than just better wages and pensions and benefits. Together, you strengthen the wider movement for justice on every front: racial justice, health care justice, immigrant justice, and environmental justice.”
Judging by the Worcester rally, the right wing seems to have failed in its attempt to divide workers, at least locally. The crowd was multiracial and consisted of people foreign- and native-born. Some people this reporter spoke with were union members, others were not. Virtually every union in Worcester and the Worcester area – not only public-sector unions – had a presence. Churches and civic and political organizations, including the Worcester Democratic City Committee and Greater Worcester Our Revolution, had a presence as well.
The vast majority of Worcester’s elected officials were present: Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin, the entire delegation to the state’s House of Representatives, aside from Republican Kate Campanale(Dan Donahue, Mary Keefe, Jim O’Day, and John Mahoney), Senate President Harriette Chandler, Petty, City Council members Sean Rose, Khrystian King, Candy Mero Carlson, and George Russell (progressive Sarai Rivera was attending a meeting in solidarity with Puerto Rico), as well as Seth Nadeau, representing U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern.
The assault on labor, including the Janus case, was described repeatedly as part of a broader right-wing agenda that goes far beyond undermining public sector workers.
“Regardless if it’s DACA, whether you’re black or you’re white, regardless if you’re a man or if you’re a woman, regardless of your sexual orientation, they don’t like anybody, they want it all for themselves,” Carlson said of corporate America and its political allies. “You need to remember that today it may be the public sector unions, but tomorrw it’s somebody else, the day after that it’ll be somebody else. United we can defeat these powerful forces.”
“This is not just a union issue,” said Pastor Jose Perez of Roca de la Salvacion, the first Puerto Rican pentecostal church in the city. “This is a question of workers’ freedom.”
While deindustrialization, the rise of the “gig economy,” Republican domination of the legislative and executive branch, a globalized economy, and other factors have put labor on the defensive, the message of the rally was that the labor movement had no plans to give up, and could very likely see a resurgence.
“People are paying attention now. Look at the statistics, people want to join unions again,” Petty said. “People are waking up and saying, ‘Listen, I deserve a better wage. I deserve health benefits.”