Public-sector union finances dented by Supreme Court ruling
Though the Democrats who run New Jersey state government passed a law six weeks helping public-sector unions organize, the labor movement will nevertheless take a financial hit under a Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that says workers can’t be forced to pay them fees.
The 5-4 ruling reversed a 1977 decision that allowed states to require that public workers pay “fair share” agency fees to unions, even if they chose not to join.
Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey director for the Communications Workers of America, which represents 30,000 state workers and 15,000 county and municipal workers in the state, said that around 10 percent of its represented workers are nonmembers.
“There’s no question there is some impact on finances. It will give us some additional hardship,” Rosenstein said. “But that is where the impact will be. It will be on sort of struggling over some finances, but it will not be on what we do and who we are.”
Rosenstein said some CWA locals are at around 80 percent membership, while others are at 97 percent.
“It certainly is a sad day for democracy when corporate interests and right-wing funders are able to do that. But I have to say that I don’t think it changes anything about who our union is or what we do or our strength,” she said. “We are a movement, not a moment. And this is a movement that gets stronger with adversity.”
Gov. Phil Murphy called it “a dark day” but noted that the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, enacted May 18, would “allow us to mitigate some of the impact here.”
“In so many respects, folks in this state, in this country, walked through the union door into the middle class,” Murphy said. “It’s sort of at the essence, at the core of the middle class and the American dream, and this undermines it.”
The state law enacted last month prohibits a public employer from encouraging employees to relinquish union membership or revoke their payment of fees. It also limits the time frame in which a public worker can withdraw their authorization for fees to be deducted from their paycheck to the 10 days following his or her annual work anniversary.
The court's decision was welcomed by Republicans. Former Gov. Chris Christie, on Twitter, said it’s “a great day for free speech rights” because government workers will “no longer pay exorbitant dues for political activities they don’t agree with.”
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, called it a big win for taxpayers – and tweeted a link to a webpage that helps workers opt out of their union membership.
“In New Jersey, the millions unions have funneled into campaigns has led to expensive government driven by the highest taxes in the nation,” O’Scanlon said. “This ruling is a victory for workers as well as for even-handed political debate. Public union money frequently, purposefully overwhelmed any potential for legitimate, fair, and open public discourse.”
Michael Merrill, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations and director of Labor Education Action Research Network, said the “traditional political power” of public-sector unions will be affected by the financial impacts of the court ruling.
But he said unions will remain influential and pointed to social-media driven enthusiasm like what helped a socialist challenger topple a Democratic incumbent in the House leadership on Tuesday.
“That’s the kind of politics we will have, and the public sector workers will be part of that. It will be much more contentious, much more loud, much more boisterous, much more polarized,” Merrill said. “But in my view, the public sector workers won’t lose power, they’ll gain power. They’ll do it in new ways that will surprise the other side.”
Merrill says the ruling must be seen “in the context of a whole series of decisions that this Supreme Court has been making that are enemies of actually American democracy.”
“They had an outcome they wanted, so they invented reasons to reach that outcome,” Merrill said. “And the invented reason in this case was free speech. And if they applied that principle generally, we wouldn’t be able to collect taxes. Those would all be voluntary payments.”
Merrill said “workers want unions” and that most will continue to pay dues but that unions will have to work harder.
“We’re returning to this older, more wild west labor relations in the public sector, which is a pity,” Merrill said. “The main thing is that the members themselves will rise up, basically. They’re being asked to shoulder new burdens. They’ve shouldered burdens before. I fully expect them to rise to the challenge. It’s just going to be messy and loud and unnecessary.”