On the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Janus v. AFSCME

The following is a statement from Christine Owens, Executive Director, National Employment Law Project, on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which the Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that public-sector unions may not collect “fair share” fees from non-union workers who benefit from the union-negotiated contract but are not dues-paying members:

“Today, the Supreme Court has further tipped the scales of justice against working people, with a decision that attacks workers’ basic right to join together in unions to improve wages and working conditions for all. Let’s be clear: America needs unions. This decision only stiffens the resolve of workers to band together and step up their organizing efforts.

“In a radical decision upending decades of established law, five justices on the Supreme Court have now held that public employers and the unions their employees form may not require non-union workers to contribute a ‘fair share fee’ to help defray costs the unions incur for bargaining and representing all members of the bargaining unit—even though these non-union workers receive all the benefits and protections their co-workers negotiate.

“This decision not only threatens to roil public-sector labor relations in the 22 states that have adopted fair-share arrangements, it also challenges the ability of 17 million workers in public-sector unions—teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and many others—to act collectively to win higher wages, better working conditions, safer workplaces, and stronger health and retirement security.

“Public employers’ ability to partner with their workers’ unions to improve public services like education, home care, police, and firefighting also is put at risk. Governors and state legislators across the country have lauded the retention of skilled workers and enhanced public services for communities when workers’ unions and the state governments join together.

“Collective action benefits not only union members but non-union workers and the entire community, helping to raise workplace standards for everyone at a time when families’ economic security and mobility are being sorely challenged.

“The Janus decision is the latest example of this Supreme Court stripping away rights and protections from workers in order to shower even more wealth and power on corporations. Last month, in Epic Systems v. Lewis, the Court also sided with big business, allowing corporations to use forced arbitration clauses to take away workers’ right to band together in court to challenge sexual harassment and other illegal workplace actions.

“In this case, a slim majority of this Court has aligned itself with the decades-long corporate effort to erase the freedom of working people to form unions—an effort borne of the recognition that workers’ unions are the institutions that give working people a real voice in their workplaces, the economy, and our democracy. Unions built America’s middle class, providing working families economic stability and giving workers the tools needed to secure a good life, a good home, and a good education for themselves and their children. The erosion of union representation has contributed to spiking economic inequality and deeper employment insecurity.

“Alone, most workers stand no chance against corporate Goliaths. But unions enable workers to be a force for countering the deep power imbalances pervading much of American life.

“This attack on public workers and their unions falls most harshly on women of color. According to the Economic Policy Institute, black women are roughly one in every six public-sector workers, making them the largest discrete share of the group. Losing access to public employment’s path to the middle class will only exacerbate longstanding inequities that workers of color experience: more than half of African-American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers are paid less than $15 per hour. Workers’ unions have also been strong allies in the fight for equal opportunity for women and communities of color who have been systematically disadvantaged due to discrimination and prejudice.

“Weakening the power of workers to form and sustain their unions hurts us all as a society; as union membership has declined, job insecurity and economic inequality have risen. And the American public understands that: more than three in five Americans have a favorable view of unions, with two-thirds of young people supporting unions. Moreover, a majority of Americans feel the decline in union representation has been bad for workers.

“NELP represented 28 fair-share fee payers in an amicus brief filed in this case. Our clients were current and former home care workers in Illinois who joined together in a union that won better wages and working conditions for them. Representation by their union unquestionably improved these workers’ lives.”

“Workers’ ability to form unions and act collectively has helped make the American ideals of prosperity and economic security a reality for millions of workers. Today, by a single-vote majority, this Supreme Court has put those ideals at risk.”

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