Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Public Employee Unions: Worker Safety Is At Risk

Public employee health care worker
Photo by Earl Dotter.

One of the most significant cases for workers in recent history is coming before the Supreme Court next week. Janus vs. AFSCME will determine whether “workers who are not members of unions representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.”  Currently workers are able to refuse to pay that portion of dues that go to political activities.  If Janus wins, workers would not even have to pay that portion of dues that goes to bargaining expenses and defending workers rights. Non-members would still enjoy the benefits of union contracts and representation, however.

Janus and his supporters are hiding behind “freedom of speech” arguments, but their real agenda is weakening public sector unions by taking away their ability to collect dues.  Destroying the labor movement in this country has long been a goal of most Republicans and  the right wing  — mainly in order to weaken one of the Democrats’ most powerful backers.  The right-leaning court is expected to rule in favor of Janus. A similar case came before the court two years ago, but resulted in a 4-4 tie after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans’ refusal to allow Obama to appoint a new justice enabled Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch and a probable majority against public employee unions –a decision that will weaken the entire labor movement.

A ruling against public unions is unlikely to have a direct impact on unionized employees of private businesses, because the First Amendment restricts government action and not private conduct. But unions now represent only 6.5 percent of private sector employees, down from the upper teens in the early 1980s, and most of the labor movement’s strength these days is in the public sector.

Public employees do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens.

Public employees — health care workers, teachers, wastewater treatment plant workers, highway workers, firefighters, police, etc — do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens. There is no national right to collective bargaining for public employees, so states decide whether government workers get to have a union or not. That right can be given, and, as we saw recently in Wisconsin, that right can be taken away.

Public employees were also not covered by OSHA. State plan states are required to cover public employees and other states can choose to establish a public employee OSHA program with half the funding coming from the feds, but only five states have chosen to do so. That leaves 23 states and 8 million public employees who have no right to a safe workplace in this country, even thought they do work that is as dangerous as private sector workers, and suffer injuries and illnesses at a higher rate.

An AFL-CIO report notes, for example, that

Workplace violence events disproportionately occur among public employees. The incidence rate of injuries caused by workplace violence was more than 675% higher for state government workers (31.2 per 10,000 workers) than the rate for private industry workers (4.0). The incidence rate of violence for local government workers (23.0 per 10,000 workers) was 475% higher than for private industry workers.

Lack of OSHA coverage makes union representation even more important for public employees, a feature noted in a New York Times article today that discussed the Janus case. Illinois AFSCME local union President Randy Clover, who voted for Trump, opposes Janus.

Mr. Clover said his union had done invaluable work, notably in ensuring workers’ safety. He gave an example from his workplace, a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The only thing we have is our hands to protect ourselves,” he said, “and we have handcuffs we can put on an individual if they are so out of control you cannot control them without somebody facing injury.”

When the state tried to ban the use of handcuffs to transport patients, Mr. Clover said, “the union went to battle for us.” The handcuffs stayed.

But, the Times notes, Janus’s lawyers argue that even safety should be considered “lobbying on questions of public policy and that unwilling workers should not be made to subsidize it.”

But make no mistake. Behind the façade of freedom of speech is a raw power play to weaken the labor movement and workers’ rights in this country — including the right to come home alive and healthy at the end of the work day.

Public Employees


  1. So off base are you. Why should workers be forced to pay for something they don’t want and is lobbying against their interests? I have changed my stance on unions and see that they have and can do good. However, coercion is not acceptable nor Constitutional. The nexus to safety is very weak. Of course, there IS a Constitutional answer to the safety concerns, which are real. Congress can include public sector employees under laws, including the OSHAct. They certainly can cover all Federal employees. (I guess there is a legitimate question as to if Congress can tell States what to do, although they do it all the time.)

    1. We live in a time of work-arounds. Executive orders replace congressional actions because congress will not act to protect its citizens. States have to regulate firearms even though fire arms are an interstate commerce problem. Health insurance is unavailable or too expensive to buy on the open market so that market has to be subsidized using tax dollars (or under republican administrations, adding to the national debt). So in States with no or poorly functioning occupational health and safety enforcement programs, unions provide the last line of defense that all public employees have against state governments so cash strapped, that they would rather spend what little money they have on something else. This is also a transparent attempt by the oligarchy to weaken unions so that their profits are maximized on the backs of dead and injured employees, easily replaceable. Just another brick in a wall that is fast closing around everyone who is not in the 1%.

  2. Even if workers are allowed to pay no dues, they will still receive the benefits of any pay increases or other benefits negotiated by the union. And the union will still be required to defend and represent them if they get in trouble with management. This is a “freeloader” problem and shouldn’t be tolerated. That’s why previous Supreme Court decisions have said that employees have the right not to contribute dues to any union political activity, but they still have to pay for representational activity. It has nothing to do with the constitutional right to free speech. It’s all about more power for corporate American and the Republican party.

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