Photo credit: David Staedtler via Flickr
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling this week in Janus v. AFSCME dealt a major blow to public sector organizing, but unions are already fighting back.  

In a 5-4 ruling by its conservative majority Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned 40 years of established law in a case intended to cut the legs from under public sector unions.

The decision in Janus v. AFSCME was the second to last ruling handed down on the final day of the Court’s term in June, but there was little suspense.

“With the most hostile anti-union forces in the country driving this case, union-busting billionaires paying the bills and a Supreme Court that is now stacked against workers, we could hardly be surprised by this assault on workers’ rights,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.

The ruling means state and local government workers are no longer required to pay the agency fees that make it possible for unions to negotiate contracts, handle grievances and otherwise represent the interests of all employees in a bargaining unit. Agency fees cover representation work only, not political action that unions take on behalf of workers.

In effect, Janus aims to strip public unions of funds and power to fight for workers the same way that states use right-to-work laws to impede private-sector organizing.

Wealthy anti-worker foundations and powerful corporate lobbies engineered the case, making Illinois state employee Mark Janus its public face.

Janus was the third case the court heard on the issue in the last five years, which is virtually unheard of, said Celine McNicholas, labor law and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute.

She called it a “legal strategy by a very determined plaintiffs with a lot of money to spend” who weren’t giving up until they got the answer they wanted.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made sure they did. Abusing Senate protocol, he stacked the court against workers by refusing to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee to fill the late Anton Scalia’s seat, keeping it open for a Republican president to nominate a new justice.

“This is an all-out attack on the basic freedom of working people to come together to better their lives and their communities, not just an attack on public-sector workers,” Stephenson said. “It is an attack on every single American who works for a living, and it is only the first step in an effort to repeal every right won by working people in this country.”

The ruling in Janus was the 2018 court’s most far-reaching decision harming workers, but not the only one. Twisting an obscure 1925 law, the same 5-4 majority took away the right of workers to have their day in court. Under the ruling in Epic Systems v. Lewis, companies can now force employees to settle disputes through arbitration.

“The decision not only closes the courthouse door to workers, it effectively bars them from any tribunal where they can vindicate their rights,” UCLA law professor Katherine Stone wrote in SCOTUS Blog, which covers the court. “It is depressing to see the Supreme Court majority give such short shrift to worker rights without any serious engagement with the issues at stake.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125, wrote, “I used to think the Supreme Court was the last institution left that was impervious to politics, but this proves otherwise. Now we have to fight even harder, come together and mobilize.”

Stephenson said the court can rule against unions but “it can never stop a movement whose time has come. Across this country, workers are standing up and joining unions in higher numbers than we have seen in many years and the IBEW, along with the entire labor movement, will never stop fighting for the basic dignity and welfare of working America. “

Three states, New York, New Jersey and California, took preemptive action to blunt the damage, passing laws that give public sector unions a better chance of recruiting new members. Union organizers in those states will have access to contact information for workers and can talk to them during the workday about the benefits of joining.

All unions and the causes that matter to workers and working families are going to be hurt by Janus, Huffington Post labor reporter Dave Jamieson said.

“Republican lawmakers around the country have been trying to peel back collective bargaining rights and weaken the political clout of unions,” he wrote. “The relative strength of the public employee unions has helped labor as a whole beat back some of those efforts. After Janus, those unions may be less able to provide mutual aid.”

It’s bad for the country as a whole, EPI’s McNicholas said.

“I fear it will really be destructive to our notions of public services and state and local governments. And I think that eroding government as a force of good in people's lives is absolutely the end goal for many of these organizations.”