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Supreme Court Could Cripple Unions, Increase Inequality

A case currently before the United States Supreme Court, called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, could become another debilitating blow to what remains of the US labor movement. If SCOTUS holds for the plaintiff, Rebeca Friedrichs, unions will no longer be able to collect so-called “agency fees” from nonunion members, despite collectively bargaining on their behalf.

Currently, nonunion member teachers in California who do not pay the $1,000 union due are required to pay $650. If Friedrichs prevails, nonunion members can pay nothing, while still gaining the benefits of a collectively bargained agreement.

The loss of these fees, and the likely result of further membership losses from those not wanting to pay dues, could seriously jeopardize the viability of maintaining unions in California and beyond. It would almost certainly decrease a union’s ability to meaningfully participate in elections and lobby – which is, not surprisingly, exactly what supporters of the case want.

The case has strong parallels with the notorious legislation passed by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, which, as noted by US News and World Report, has crippled unions in the state and significantly decreased their involvement in elections:

Wisconsin is a telling example. In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker passed Act 10, legislation that did away with agency fees for public sector unions, among other measures that curbed union power. Membership in the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, dropped dramatically, from about 98,000 members in 2011 to about 40,000 last year

The council’s annual lobbying expenditures ranged from $500,000 to $1,500,000 from 2005 to 2010, and peaked at $2.25 million in 2011 during its fight to stop Act 10. Since Act 10 passed and agency fees were eliminated in 2011, the council’s lobbying expenditures have remained below $150,000. A similar pattern is evident in hours spent lobbying.

While the results may vary somewhat by state, there is little doubt that unions everywhere will be negatively effected if SCOTUS holds for the plaintiff. For many unions, it could deal a fatal blow.

Destroying unions has been a long-term project of ideological conservatives and their moneyed backers. The libertarian principle of voluntary association merges nicely with fears that high labor costs threaten profitability. But the pursuit of those ideological and economic interests creates serious problems when it succeeds.

The so-called “middle class” is not possible in a capitalist system without public and private interventions. Under a system where markets are left to make all determinations there are simply haves and have-nots, with few in between. A middle class is always the result of impositions on the market system.

Labor unions, along with government programs, have been a key pillar in the framework of a system created around the turn of the 20th century to impose a middle class on the American economy. Unions, through collective bargaining, push wages up, which allows workers to live a higher standard of living without the need to incur unsustainable debt.

The weakening of unions, along with rollbacks on government welfare programs and regulatory schemes introduced in the New Deal and Great Society, has led to increased poverty and a rapidly dissipating middle class. Capital, unrestrained, crushes labor.

The dissipation of the middle class has led to a situation where the rich have even more political and economic power than before. They have used this power to enrich themselves, fostering historic economic inequality.

With a decision for the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, and the subsequent damage to unions it would cause, inequality is destined to get even worse.

Tower 5 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary (RLEvans on Flickr)
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Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.