The German philospher, Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Was ihn nicht umbringt, macht ihn stärker.” Translated, it says, “What does not kill him makes him stronger.”
If recent history is any indication, the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is serving to prove Nietzche’s statement.
Unions haven’t died as a result of the Janus case or any of the other recent attacks on them, and they aren’t going to die any time soon. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that recent challenges to unions are only going to serve to make them stronger.
The ruling in the Janus case came as no surprise to union leaders who have been planning and preparing for this moment for years.
While the ruling in Janus may represent a short-term
victory of sorts for anti-labor special interests, the
attack on union rights may just have awoken a sleeping giant
to an extent that has not been seen in this country
for many, many years.
The Janus ruling is the culmination of a 6-year long, relentless campaign by corporate interests to reverse the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court ruling of 1977 that for decades allowed for fair compensation to unions for the services they provided to their members. The Knox v. Service Employees case of 2012, the Harris v. Quinn case of 2014, and the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case of 2016, were all brought before the court in rapid-fire succession. Each one of these cases challenged a union’s right to collect agency fees.
Throughout the time of these recent attacks on union rights, union leaders have been preparing for life without the agency fee requirement and have enjoyed great successes along the way.
Most recently, in the state of New York, labor leaders were able to convince lawmakers to add a provision into the state budget. The provision will that greatly minimize any financial impact unions might experience from the loss of fees from “freeloaders” who might look to take the benefits negotiated and managed for them by their union but not pay for them.
The provision amends the state’s Taylor Law governing all public employees. It removes the requirement of public sector unions to provide any legal representation for those employees who are not dues paying members.
The language of the amendment stipulates that an organization’s duty of fair representation shall be limited to the negotiation and enforcement of an agreement with an employer. Any employee who chooses to opt-out of paying their fair share of union dues and is brought up on disciplinary charges would pay for lawyers out of his/her own pocket instead of being defended at the expense of those employees who do pay their fair share.
In addition, the Taylor Law in New York State was also amended to require employers to permit unions to meet with all new employees with the first 30 days of their hire, improved dues collections, and limited the manner and frequency with which an employee can terminate his/her membership in the union.
All of these provisions seek to minimize any negative consequences to the union that might take place as a result of the Janus decision.
In addition to legislative victories, unions have been actively involved in a door-to-door, grassroots efforts to inform members of the value of union membership. Many school districts, such as ours in Levittown, began a union card drive asking each member of their union to sign an agreement stipulating that, regardless of the Janus ruling, they will remain an active dues paying member of their union.
In the Levittown district, the majority of schools boasted 100% participation. The one-on-one conversations union leaders had with members of the LUT during this process helped to inform colleagues about important issues and galvanize support for years to come.
During oral arguments in the Janus case Justice Stephen Breyer remarked, “… I once heard Archie Cox [former United States Solicitor General, Archibald Cox] … say the greatest instrument for labor peace and prosperity from the years 1945 to 1970 was grievance arbitration in the unions.”
While the ruling in Janus may represent a short-term victory of sorts for the anti-labor special interests, the attack on union rights may just have awoken a sleeping giant to an extent that has not been seen in this country for many, many years.
In states where unions have been under the greatest amount of attack, powerful responses from those unions have followed. In some cases, union members have worked hard to encourage people to vote for candidates who treat unions fairly. In other cases, union members have taken to the streets in protest in protection of their rights. In still others, union members have walked off the job to make a public statement about injustices in the workplace and unfair compensation.
Whether it is through the mass media or social media, through public protest or work action, or simply through expressing themselves at the ballot box, union members have been called to action by the Janus case. Their response in the weeks, months and years to come will determine whether or not this week’s ruling in the Supreme Court was the beginning of the end for them, or the end of the beginning.