To many observers around the world, the Obama years looked like the beginnings of a significant shift to the left in American politics. The view from up close was very different. While former President Barack Obama was making significant changes at the national and international level, Republicans were grabbing more of America’s statehouses and governors’ mansions during Obama’s two terms, than at any time in the modern era.
Now, with President Donald Trump in office and Republicans controlling both chambers in Congress too, the US laws protecting workers rights are under a greater threat than they have been for decades.
Labor unions in America have already been badly affected by sustained attacks by Republican legislators. In the mid-1950s, a third of American workers belonged to a labor union. Seventy years later, that figure has now fallen to less than 11 per cent, including a tiny 6.4 per cent of private sector workers.
The strategy of enacting legislation making it illegal for labor unions to collect dues from employees who chose not to join a union, but still benefit from union collective bargaining wins, has proved particularly corrosive.
Republicans have dubbed these statues: “Right-to-Work” laws, to make them sound a lot more attractive to working people than they actually are. The legal and negotiating expertise required for effective bargaining costs money, and these laws starve unions of the funds they need to pay for it.
Not content with enacting union-busting laws in 28 of the 50 American states, there is a case currently before the US Supreme Court, bankrolled by billionaires and corporate CEOs, to make it illegal for unions to automatically collect dues from all public sector workers across the country who are covered by union contracts.
The plaintiff in the case, Mark Janus (pictured), is a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on the other side, represents Janus and the other 35,000 state employees in Illinois.
Following the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last April, the decision in Janus v. AFSCME, is widely expected to go against the interests of union members.
One of the largest union locals in the country, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, operates in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Maryland and Florida.
“Janus v AFSCME is nothing but a political attempt to strip unions of the ability to support our members in the public sector and destroy the protections that allow hardworking people to live with dignity,” said George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East said in a joint statement with the City of New York.
The statement was issued last month when New York City filed an ‘amicus brief’, a mechanism for parties not directly involved in a case to put arguments about wider implications of decisions before the Supreme Court. The brief is strongly opposed to what amounts to a direct attack on the ability of unions to negotiate strong contracts.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “New York City is the city it is today because of the hardworking unionized men and women who built it and run it. Our city is stronger because of unions’ ability to organize and fight for all of our rights. Especially in the face of our current political climate, we should be bolstering tools for empowering and protecting workers not making them more difficult to come by.”
Gresham agreed, adding: “New York City is indeed a union town, and I commend Mayor de Blasio for supporting workers, and the right to collectively bargain for the wages, benefits, and working conditions they deserve.”
In states like Florida where these reactionary laws have existed for some time, the most recent statistics from the US Department of Labor show just 6.6 per cent of Floridian workers belong to labor unions, which is just over half the rate of union membership nationally. In New York, where no such union-busting laws exist, research conducted by the City University of New York shows that 24.2 per cent of wage earners are members of labor unions, compared with an average of 10.7 per cent in the country as a whole.
Using the courts to attack workers’ rights is nothing new, of course. In 2014, another Supreme Court ruling that is widely seen as a precursor to the Janus v AFSCME case, found that unions could no longer collect dues automatically from one particular class of public sector employees.
This decision also affected 1199SEIU, whose membership included 45,000 Personal Care Attendants in Massachusetts. These workers, who mainly look after residents living in nursing homes, suddenly had to sign cards re-confirming membership to a union they had been part of for years.
“Generations of American workers have fought to win a simple contract with their employer: a day’s work earned a day’s pay,” Gresham told the New York Amsterdam News, “Through struggle and sacrifice, workers built our unions and won a ladder into the middle class. Those gains proved precarious, however, as corporations tried to drive down costs and right-wing politicians attacked our social safety net. Now, in 2017, we are facing dramatically increased threats to job security, wages and benefits. Right to work legislation, once the province of the South, has moved North.”
Gresham continued, “Employers hire anti-union goons to spread fear among workers who consider joining a union. The right is gearing up, with the encouragement of Congress and the White House, to roll back hard-earned protections that took decades to enact into law.”
The political tide in Washington has clearly turned sharply against collective bargaining and the counter-balance to inequality that it provides. The Supreme Court too has been co-opted into this battle.
On the other hand, the ferocity of the current Republican administration has woken up a new generation of union and community activists. By working together, they have managed to preserve the Affordable Care Act against a well-funded and sustained assault.
Whether or not the Republicans holding power in Washington are able to complete their rout of traditional unions will depend on ordinary members and their allies across the country maintaining as much unity as the right wing was able to muster during the Obama years.
Sarah Wilson is a freelance journalist and American trade unionist