Will Harris v. Quinn be the “kill shot” to public sector unions?

In a widely-circulated column appearing in The Nation, Joel Rogers of the Center for Wisconsin Strategy explains how a case now up before the U.S. Supreme Court stands to strike a mortal blow, or “kill shot”, to the American labor movement. But regardless of whether Harris v. Quinn is the legal case that does us in, it’s clear that labor’s enemies are gathering at the gates.

Harris v. Quinn, is brought to you by the legal arm of the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTW), a right-wing organization with deep pockets and a secret list of very wealthy donors. In 2010, the Foundation was invited to present at the Koch Brothers’ infamous Aspen fundraiser.  Nine different organizations filed legal briefs in support of the NRTW, eight of which have documented ties to the Koch brothers, and additional support from other right wing billionaires.

At issue is a small group of Illinois home care workers who claim that paying their fair share for the costs, and substantial benefits, of union representation is a violation of their First Amendment Rights.

By law, all unions must represent the business interests of the entire worksite. All employees, members and non-members alike, enjoy the wages and benefits gained through collective bargaining.  And the union advantage is substantial. The median weekly wages of workers represented by a union are 28 percent higher than non-union workers.

In return, unions collect a fee for that representation that does not include any charges for their political activities or issue advocacy from nonmember workers. States and local governments benefit from this “agency fee” arrangement because it is more efficient to come to an agreement with a single union than to negotiate separate contracts with each employee. Workers benefit because the union can negotiate better terms without fear of retaliation or termination.

The Supreme Court has affirmed the legality and fairness of this arrangement in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) and in numerous cases since. In Harris v. Quinn, lawyers for Pamela Harris and her co-petitioners argue for, as Rogers coins it, the “Right to Free Ride.” They have expanded their argument to assert that, since payroll has budget implications for governments, all public sector bargaining amounts to political speech.

If the NRTW succeeds, Harris v. Quinn could mean an end to the agency fee model on which SEIU and other unions that represent public sector workers depend. It means an end to exclusive representation and the united workforce. It means weaker unions, greater income inequality, lower wages and increasingly meager benefits for workers.

The NRTW is making a cynical bet that when presented with the opportunity most people will ditch their responsibility and opt for the “free ride.” If they can force unions to spend an unsustainable amount of money and energy to retain a dwindling membership, we will be unable to defeat their pro-corporate agenda in Sacramento and Washington DC, and we will be unable to effectively advocate for each other.

The bar to success is low for the NRTW as even a narrowly written decision in Harris v. Quinn could leave the agency fee model intact while still denying hundreds of thousands of home care workers around the country their right to unionize by stripping them of their status as public employees.

Attorneys presented their arguments before the court on January 21. Legal observers have given a lot of weight to Justice Scalia’s aggressive questioning of the NRTW’s lead attorney, but if you listen closely to Scalia’s tough line of questioning you hear the voice of a stern but helpful tutor, correcting and clarifying a path toward a more expansive anti-union majority opinion that thoroughly dismantles workers’ rights.

Our most effective strategy is getting back to the fundamentals of unionism: activism and solidarity:

  1. Stand with your brothers and sisters as a full member of SEIU Local 521, and encourage your coworkers to do the same.
  2. Contribute to the COPE political action fund and help us fight for workers rights and a just society.
  3. Get more involved with your union by becoming a Shop Steward or join a caucus or committee and help us take on the issues that matter most to you and fellow union members.

The Koch brothers and their billionaire friends want to destroy our unions because they think we are too apathetic to fight back. So, will Harris v. Quinn be the ‘kill-shot’ to public sector unions? Only if we let it.

Let’s prove them wrong!

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