February 27, 2018

February 27, 2018

With the oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME come and gone, the five Republican justices are now circling what’s left of the union movement as vultures do carrion.

Ironically, the right’s war-to-the-death on worker organizations looks to be peaking just when labor’s favorability is the highest it’s been in decades. Over the past year, Pew and Gallup have measured organized labor’s favorability at 60 percent and 61 percent, respectively. Even a sizable minority of Republicans (42 percent in Gallup, 44 percent in Pew) think well of unions. Gallup notes that the share of Americans who would like unions to have more influence is the highest since it first asked that question 18 years ago. Pew notes that fully 76 percent of Americans under 30 approve of unions—statistical confirmation that the grad students and young journalists at digital media companies who are electing to join unions reflect a generation-wide sentiment.

In joining unions, however, the grad students and journalists are nonetheless exceptions to their generation’s experience. On the whole, unlike their fellow millennials, they can join a union without fear of being fired. (Of course, such was not the case for the journalists at Gothamist, LAist, and DCist, who saw their papers shuttered by their Republican billionaire owner the moment they voted to go union—though, happily, those papers have now been bought by new owners who apparently believe that journalists are people with certain inalienable rights.) For their part, university administrators, while so far refraining from gunning down their grad students in the grand tradition of Henry Clay Frick at Homestead, refuse to grant their teaching and research assistant the right to a union. But unlike millennials elsewhere in the economy, the grad students are too important to the universities (they are, after all, a grand source of underpaid labor) to be fired.

The disjuncture between the level of support for unions and the actual rate of unionization—which, in the private sector, is just one-tenth of the union favorability number in Gallup and Pew—is one of those flashing lights indicating a system shutdown—in this case, an abridgement of fundamental rights. By virtue of decades of court decisions and the Taft-Hartley Act, which encourage management to intimidate workers during unionization campaigns, union elections seldom allow workers to freely choose to unionize. Majority rule in the workplace is blocked in much the same way that gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Electoral College, and the non-representative nature of the Senate have suppressed majority rule in our government. Sixty percent of Americans favor unions; just 6.5 percent of private sector workers now belong to them. Democrats (Al Gore, Hillary Clinton) win pluralities in the presidential popular vote but lose the election nonetheless. In both the workplace and the republic, our laws don’t look all that kindly on majority rule.

And now, with support for unions nearly double the level of opposition, the Republicans on the Court are on the verge of crippling the one part of the labor movement—the public employee unions—that is still large and thriving. The same goons who removed the safeguards that enabled minorities to go unimpeded to the polls now take aim at what’s left of workplace rights as well. We’re fighting again for the very rudiments of democracy—unencumbered access to the franchise and majority rule, at the polls, in the workplace, in our country.