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What's at Stake in the Harris v. Quinn Case

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.