In recent weeks, the Supreme Court ruled favorably for low-income Americans who were denied subsidies for healthcare premiums and in support of same-sex marriage, acknowledging the economic vulnerability of millions in accessing healthcare and the barriers to social equality that remain for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. Many people were relieved and even rejoiced in these decisions that promoted social equity to varying degrees.
Two critical rulings
Absent the healthcare ruling, millions would not be able to pay for commercial health insurance, as mandated under the ACA. When you think about it, the need for subsidies only furthers our argument that what this country needs is real universal healthcare — as described in a single payer system: improved and expanded Medicare for all. More and more healthcare providers and patients see that this exploitative, for-profit health insurance system has to go. Nurses’ struggles for retiree health and improved benefits would no longer be a barrier in contract negotiations, and workers in general would not be tied to a job they hate for life, simply because it offers health benefits.
The Constitutional guarantee for same-sex marriage completed a campaign of several decades in which LGBT Americans, joined by family, religious, labor and community support, prevailed in their search for fundamental equality. Don’t think for a minute that social movements don’t matter when courts and legislatures make decisions. History has shown us this time and again. With the right to marry come other measures of social and economic equality, and when discrimination is weakened for one group of people, we are all better human beings as a result.
Ironically, this powerful Court also holds out the prospect of a very harmful setback for working people: in the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, now on the Court’s docket for the fall, the right of public unions to require all members who receive the benefits of representation to pay dues is being challenged. This attack on public unions will easily filter into an attack on private unions, on the very concept of unions, and on all working people across the U.S.
It is no surprise that the Friedrichs case is championed by the Koch brothers and other right-wing groups whose origins include the notorious John Birch Society. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, litigating the Friedrichs case, is funded by the Kochs and their allies. The Kochs have battled against environmental regulations and women’s reproductive rights, among other causes, committing billions of dollars to think tanks and election campaigns to achieve results. They have indicated an intention to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 election.
That figure is key because while the right ups its spending on elections, raising the profiles of its candidates and issues, a ruling against unions in the Friedrichs case undercuts the ability of public unions to speak about and affect policy through lobbying.
At the center of the case is “agency fee,” or the obligation to pay a “fair share” service fee, the cost of representation.
The fair share is justified for several reasons. The benefits of representation are tangible: wage increases, health coverage, pensions and improved working conditions. Those are achieved through collective bargaining funded by union dues.
But there is more to our dues than these issues. Our dues help give us a voice at work and in our communities, through outreach and lobbying. Working people need a voice more than ever. Those who opt out, well, they pay the agency fee. This is how it works in nearly all of our contracts in NY and what has allowed NY to achieve the economic and social gains we now take for granted.
Now all of this is up for grabs.
Wisconsin’s landmark law — called Act 10 — severely restricted the power of public-employee unions to bargain collectively. No surprise that take-home pay for public workers in the Wisconsin State Employee’ Union has fallen more than 10 percent since the Act’s passage.
In fact, workers in right-to-work states earn on average 12 percent less than workers in non-right-to-work states. For every $1 million in wage cuts, reports the Economic Policy Institute, comes an additional six jobs lost in the economy. Right-to-work laws have no impact in boosting economic growth. But they do parallel the nation’s trend of economic inequality.
When union voices are muted, when our ability to speak as a union and to lobby our elected officials is diminished, the public’s health and safety are in peril. Right-to-work states rank lower on average in poverty rates for children, infant mortality, cardiovascular deaths, access to primary care MDs and mental health services, infectious disease control and occupational fatalities.
The benefits of representation are profound and many — from our wages and benefits, to the process of collective bargaining, to defending the policies upon which they are founded. A “fair share” is more than fair — its destruction could sever the lifeline that so many workers desperately need in these hard times.