EDITORIAL: Under assault from a politicized court, unions must keep proving their worth
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More than ever, unions will have to show why they matter.
Given the beating working people are taking today, they had better be up to the challenge.
We could almost hear Gov. Bruce Rauner singing Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that public employees no longer have to pay fees to the unions that negotiate their wages and benefits. The court’s decision, in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees — a case Rauner helped launch — dramatically escalates an ongoing assault on the collective power of working people by the governor, President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
But we’ve seen this before, and we’ve seen the backlash. Workers are not so easily divided and conquered.
In 2011, the Illinois Legislature tried to end the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to strike by imposing what was thought to be an impossibly high threshold. The union, according to a new law, could strike only if authorized by at least 75 percent of its membership.
So what did CTU do? It roared back, going on strike the very next year, with authorization from fully 90 percent of its membership.
The CTU was not cowed. It was fired up.
So, too, public employee unions must roar back now — by making their case. In a country where workers’ wages have remained largely flat for more than three decades, even as company shareholder dividends and executive paychecks have soared, collective bargaining by organized labor remains one of the few checks on dangerously growing income inequality.
Unionized workers earn more. The typical union worker in 2014 was paid $970 a week, compared with $763 for non-union workers, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unionized workers typically enjoy better benefits, including health insurance and retirement accounts. They are treated with more dignity and respect by employers, and they’ve got an advocate in their corner when they are not being treated justly.
The Supreme Court’s decision poses a huge challenge to AFSCME and other public employee unions, but it also presents them with an opportunity. The challenge for union leaders is to dig down deep, engaging in one-on-one conversations with every union member and making clear the advantages of unionization — and why union dues are a relative bargain. The opportunity is to build a better informed, more socially aware and committed union membership.
We say this as a newspaper whose owners include organized labor groups. But there’s no denying that unions tend to lift all boats. The better pay and benefits negotiated by unions become the standard for compensation for non-union workers.
Gov. Rauner often says he’s not anti-union, but his actions say otherwise. He claims he just wants to bring “good jobs” to Illinois, and union strictures get in the way. But he misses the point.
Our nation is near full employment right now, yet 40 percent of the workforce is paid less than $15 an hour. Grown men and women are working two and three jobs to support their families. We’re all for bringing more “good jobs” to Illinois, too, but why not make existing jobs “good jobs,” with better wages, health care and full-time work?
Rauner’s response is that companies would pay workers more if they could, but they can’t do so and still remain competitive.
Funny how that works. Corporate profits and dividends have surged to record highs in the United States — shareholders aren’t taking the hit. And the average CEO now earns 339 percent more than the average worker. The suits sure aren’t taking the hit. The average CEO in the U.S., for that matter, is paid four times more than the average CEO in the world’s other 21 top economies.
At the same time, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress last year rewrote our nation’s tax code to transfer more money to the wealthy. Trump promised that a big tax cut for corporations would result in bigger paychecks for workers, but that has not happened.
Only rank-and-file workers are being left behind, with real wages stagnating since 1980. In the past year, in a continuation of this sorry trend, median real wages in the United States grew only 0.2 percent, according to a Bloomberg News analysis, while the average pay for employees in the 95th percent increased 1.5 percent.
The pie is big. The pie is fat. The only question is who eats.
The Supreme Court’s majority ruled that the free speech rights of the plaintiff in this case, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois, are being infringed upon when he is forced to pay an “agency fee,” also called a “fair share fee,” to AFSCME. The fee, which the state requires him to pay as a condition of employment, goes toward the union’s costs of collective bargaining, from which Janus benefits though he is not a union member.
Janus’ novel argument, in essence, was that the state of Illinois was forcing him to support views and actions with which he does not agree, violating his right to free speech.
Our own view is that agency fees, found constitutional by the courts for 40 years, are a good deal more benign: Janus is not a union member; rather, he paid 78 percent of union dues in exchange for AFSCME Council 31 negotiating his salary and benefits.
What we see in the Janus ruling, coming from a Supreme Court that consistently voted along ideological lines this year, is yet another attack on the ability of working people to earn an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, “Maybe most alarming, the majority has chosen the winners by turning the First Amendment into a sword, and using it against workaday economic and regulatory policy.”
Kagan wrote that there was no “sugarcoating” the majority’s opinion, which calls for “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”
Gov. Rauner has been a part of the problem. He came into office on a pledge to beat down the unions. He called AFSCME “Af-Scammy,” fought the concept of a “prevailing wage” — the salary set for public works projects — and championed union-free right-to-work zones.
None of this is new. And it is certainly as old as Chicago.
In the Panic of 1893, one of the wealthiest men in the world, George Pullman, cut wages at his railroad sleeping car factory south of Chicago. Only later — after a workers’ strike and a deadly railroad union boycott — did it come out that Pullman’s profits suffered hardly at all, and his investors got their usual cut. Only the workers were expected to take a hit.
George Pullman would have loved this Supreme Court.