Supreme Court deals blow to labor, Black workers

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By Stephanie Gadlin, Special to the Crusader Newspaper Group

Labor leaders, elected officials and others were quick to react to Wednesday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that says public sector unions cannot charge fees to employees who decline to join a union but are covered by its collective bargaining agreement.

In a 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the court ruled the fees are unconstitutional, and, reverses a 40-year-old precedent that overturns laws in 22 states.

Analysts and labor experts said the decision will have a disproportionate impact on Black workers, particularly female. “While the outcome of the case will affect about 17 million public-sector workers across the country, Black women in particular could be hurt by Janus, as they are disproportionately represented in public sector jobs,” said the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) before the ruling.  “They make up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers.”

That fact did not sway the nation’s highest court. Ruling on the last day of the its term, Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion with the court’s conservatives joining him. “Under Illinois law, public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities,” Alito wrote. “We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

The decision has the potential to decimate the financial coffers of locals across the country at a time when collective bargaining, pension security and workplace violence is at an all time high.

The City of Gary employs approximately 700 employees and 80 percent of them, according to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, are protected by collective bargaining units, including AFSCME. Despite the pro-government ruling, the mayor had harsh words about the decision.

“It’s unfortunate it seems like this week the Supreme Court set out on a course that is not necessarily consistent with protecting people,” she said. “I see organized labor as a valuable part of communities— particularly those who value workers’ rights and their ability to ensure that workers are treated fairly. “I would also hope that you don’t have a drove of people who are now looking to simply get the benefits that unions offer without paying the cost,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That’s called freeloading where I’m from.”

Union officials and pro-labor elected officials in Illinois spared few words when reacting to the decision.  State Senator Kwame Raoul, candidate for Illinois Attorney General,  said in a statement, “ Illinois working people are under attack, and their ability to take collective action is one of the last lines of defense against the erosion and deliberate undermining of adequate pay and protections,” he said. “[The]  decision, enabled by Bruce Rauner and the powerful special interests that initiated and funded this lawsuit, aims another blow at workers standing together to bargain for better working conditions and stronger communities.”

Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) told reporters, “I am deeply concerned that this decision will weaken our strong labor unions that have historically given our workers a safer work environment, fair wages, and collective bargaining rights against unfair working conditions. They hold a special place in our country’s history,” he said.

“This decision overturns decades of legal precedent that allowed unions to collect fair share fees for the services they are legally required to provide their workers. Our country was built on the hard work that so many Americans invested in our factories and offices. I’ll continue to fight for labor unions so we can build a strong middle class and make sure that workers have the collective bargaining rights they deserve.”

Brandon Johnson, a public school teacher who was recently elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners told the Crusader, “The Supreme Court has ruled in the interest of corporations and the 1 percent who seek to undermine worker rights in both the public and private sector,” he said.

“In Chicago, we have seen this from a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor, who have paved the way for the sabotaging of the economic base of Black communities by attacking teachers, school employees, health care and transit workers, as well as first responders,” Johnson said.

SEIU Healthcare President Gregg Kelley agreed, “The right-wing court is following lockstep with President Trump, Gov. Rauner, the super wealthy and anti-union groups like the Illinois Policy Institute who want to deprive workers a voice and drive as much profit as possible to the top 1 percent regardless of the impact on everyday Americans who depend on the services public workers provide.

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