FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Conservative Court Could Kill Unions (or Revive Them)

by ARI PAUL

The Supreme Court this week takes up the issue of automatic union membership as a condition of employment. A formerly obscure case involving domestic workers in Illinois has made its way to Washington. If a majority of this conservative court agree with the anti-union activists who have been pursuing the case, it could subject all public sector unions, which make up the current bulk of the American labor movement, to a national right-to-work precedent: Unions and management would not able to make automatic union dues payment a condition of employment.

Union activists fear such a decision could be the final blow in the sustained right-wing campaign against public sector unions that began in 2011 when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker overcame massive protests to strip most of the state’s government workers of collective bargaining rights.

The logical perception is that these compulsory union dues give labor its ability to operate with regular, routine revenue, allowing unions to employ attorneys, clerical workers, business agents, safety experts and so on. From a market standpoint, dues allow unions to contribute to the economy, as they patronize caterers, travel companies, convention spaces, print shops and other businesses. (This writer’s concern is moral but also practical: I am an editor for a public sector union and freelance for labor-backed publications.)

Taking away that cash flow can cripple unions. For example, when the New York City transit workers lost dues check-off (having dues funneled off every workers’ paycheck) by a court order after its illegal 2005 strike, the union had to focus all of its energy away from representing workers and toward collecting dues voluntarily. Moreover, the union’s leadership had to take a more conciliatory approach toward management in order to convince the court that it wouldn’t strike again in order to get automatic dues deduction restored. The latter problem inspired some union dissidents to withhold dues as a form of protest, only making matters worse.

But the more radical end of the labor movement sees automatic dues collection as a force that has lulled the rank-and-file into complacency. Strong unions, they contend, must have a motivated rank-and-file membership that is energized and involved in the day-to-day affairs of the union. The American labor movement, instead, is a system where workers come into a job, have their dues collected automatically and only come in contact with a union representative when they have a problem on the job, creating a relationship akin to that of a customer and an insurance agency, rather than some sort of working-class social movement.

As one labor academic explained to me several years ago, forcing a union’s leadership to collect dues voluntarily has the benefit of ensuring that union representatives have to come into physical contact with members, creating a more organic relationship between the actual workers and the union’s staff. Further, the idea goes, it keeps the union motivated to deliver results for the membership. If the union is lackadaisical, members can withhold dues as punishment. The threat can motivate representatives to ensure workplace safety, fair representation and good contracts.

The radical hope, in this case, is that that if the Supreme Court deals organized labor this blow it could inspire this kind of dynamic where labor doesn’t depend on enshrining its privileges through the employer but solely through answering to the membership. And sure, the lack of regular cash flow might mean some union bureaucrats have to get laid off, but it should be members, not staffers, who make labor’s decisions, these advocates would say.

But such a viewpoint is an overly optimistic one. A major advocate for this stance is the Industrial Workers of the World, which has a miniscule membership and few recent victories to cite. And there was hope during the uprising in Wisconsin that the threat of losing collective bargaining rights would inspire unionists to go out on a general strike, reviving labor militancy among a workforce that contained people of all political stripes. Alas, that did not happen. Old union habits die hard.

So the more likely outcome of a defeat for labor in this case would be just that: defeat. If the court spares labor, unionists can sigh in relief. But it will only mean some other death blow from the far right is just around the corner.

Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The NationThe GuardianZ Magazine and The American Prospect.

 

More articles by:
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail