Women workers vow to fight back after Supreme Court ruling
There’s no doubt about it—in its 5-4 Janus v. AFSCME ruling, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to an already embattled labor movement. While disappointing, the ruling was not a surprise, as Republicans stacked the deck against working people by blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland for the last nine months of President Barack Obama’s term.
The court ruled that public-sector unions can no longer utilize “fee share” systems that charge an agency fee to employees who decide not to join a union but are covered by its collective bargaining agreement. This effectively means that public-sector non-union members can opt out of paying their fair share of the cost of union representation, while still receiving many of the benefits of that representation. The ruling could starve unions of one of their most important sources of revenue: the contributions that employees make so that the union has the resources to take on powerful corporations and fight for their collective interests.
The impact of the ruling will fall particularly hard on women, especially women of color, who make up a disproportionate share of public-sector union members and for whom such unions have been a lifeline. Despite being just over 7 percent of the overall population in the United States, Black women account for nearly one in every five public-sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, compared to one in seven in the labor force at large.
In 2013, Kim Freeman Brown co-authored the report And Still I Rise: Black Women in Labor, which was published by the Institute for Policy Studies. The report profiles more than two dozen Black women leaders within formal organized labor and within alternative labor organizations like workers centers and grassroots community/labor alliances. “The women I interviewed for And Still I Rise were absolutely clear about the impact having access to a union meant to their lives. They believed in the power of organized labor so deeply that they dedicated their entire lives to helping more people, especially more Black women, exercise their right to join a union. This ruling may signify a sad moment in our history, but it’s not going to stop any of the women I interviewed from fighting for their communities,” said Freeman Brown.
In early 2017, I became network president and co-executive director at the Center for Popular Democracy, a national network of more than 50 grassroots community organizing groups in 34 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. In this capacity, I’ve had the opportunity to meet working women all across the country, and I’ve seen firsthand the commitment Freeman Brown is naming. Women, especially women of color, know that being a union member gives them greater economic security than their nonunion sisters have. In fact, Black women are second only to Black men in having the highest union representation rate compared with other race or gender groups. Our communities have utilized the collective power of unions to reduce the gender-based pay inequities that women workers routinely face — Black women in unions, for example, earn nearly 95 percent of what their Black male counterparts make, compared to 91 percent for Black women who aren’t in unions. White women in unions make 88 cents for every dollar made by a white male — nonunion white women earn just 80 cents.
The public sector in particular has long been a vital employer for communities of color. Traditionally, jobs in local and state government offered greater stability and job security than those in the private sector, and often higher wages and better benefits to women of color than the private sector. Black women make a median hourly wage of nearly $18 an hour in the public sector, compared to just over $13 in the private sector, according to EPI.
The numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Unions not only help women close the pay gap — they also help employees come together and fight for their rights in an economy that still overwhelmingly discriminates against women and people of color. Unions — supported by member dues — help women fight sexual harassment in the workplace, demand hours that let them balance work and family, and win long-term protections against discrimination.
Salewa Ogunmefun, political director at the community organizing group One Pennsylvania, explains, “Direct representation and services are just one of the many ways unions fight to improve the lives of women and our families. Union members also contribute to and help lead campaigns to improve job quality, compensation, and standards for all workers. For example, right now in Philadelphia, One Pennsylvania and our partners are working to pass fair scheduling legislation that will give workers the right to a fair and predictable schedule. Many union members already have these rights through their collective bargaining process, yet they are still working side by side with women who don’t have access to a union to pass these important protections.”
We all should be outraged by the Supreme Court’s blatant disregard for working people. Unions give workers the opportunity to speak with a collective and powerful voice. And that’s exactly why they are under attack today. Janus is just the latest volley in a decades-long campaign by conservative think tanks and monied special interests to roll back the gains that women and people of color have won in the workplace in order to maximize corporate profits.
The Janus case was never about protecting the interests of workers. It was fundamentally a cynical conservative ploy to reduce workers’ engagement in collective advocacy. Which is why it’s not at all surprising that the plaintiff Mark Janus announced almost immediately after the ruling was released that he would be joining a conservative think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute. These same corporate interests have also driven down wages and watered down benefits over the past few decades and made it harder for workers to fight corporate wrongdoing. Just a few weeks before Janus, another Supreme Court ruling, Epic Systems v. Lewis, drove the final nail in the coffin of class-action suits by allowing corporations to include class-action waivers in arbitration agreements. Class actions have been a key tool to fight sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the workplace. Epic Systems, much like Janus, is designed to make it harder for people to come together to fight injustice.
Following the Janus ruling, many unions fear their members could become free riders, choosing not to pay fees for services that their union provides. Already, conservative groups, many backed by the Koch brothers, owners of one of the largest conglomerates in America and key funders of the Tea Party and other conservative groups, are mounting a concerted effort in New York and other union-heavy states to convince members to stop paying dues.
Yet even in the face of what seems to be an unending assault on our rights, I maintain hope that we will come out of this darkness even stronger as a movement.
That’s because women, and particularly women of color, have always been at the forefront of the fight for workers’ rights. From fast food workers on the front lines of the Fight for $15, the movement fighting for a higher minimum wage, to teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, women have been paving the way for an economy that can work better for everyone. They’ve been at the center of the biggest labor victories of the past decade, winning higher minimum wages, fair schedules, and paid sick leave.
Christina Livingston, executive director of ACCE Action, a statewide grassroots organization in California, sums up the moment by sharing, “Women, especially women of color, have always been the doers — in the labor movement, in the civil rights movement, and in today’s movements for economic and racial justice. The Supreme Court wants to bury women like me, but they don’t understand that regardless of their ruling, our organizing and power will continue to grow.”
Today’s economy is changing quickly. As we shift to a service economy, women are on the front lines, making up the bulk of employees in hospitality, retail, food service, and other industries. Women know just how much a collective voice matters in industries where workers are being squeezed. And we will continue to lead the fight no matter the strength of the headwinds against us.
For workers who have access to a union, this requires everyone to be an organizer and a steward of the union. Workers will need to rely on each other, more than paid staff, to share the importance of having a collective voice. In addition, public-sector unions will have to adapt, ending the relative “truce” that has been in place for decades. If the system is rigged against workers, and we are denied our voice at the bargaining table, than politicians and the monied elite should be prepared for more strikes such as the successful round of teachers strikes that swept the country earlier this year.
For decades, both workers who are in unions and those who lack access to unions have fought to improve their working conditions and their lives. These obstacles will only make our resolve to organize for a just society and a fair economy stronger. Cynical conservative donors have thrown billions of dollars around trying to undermine the voices of workers across the country, but like seeds planted in fertile soil, our commitment and resolve will only grow stronger in the face of these attacks.
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