What’s at stake in the Janus case

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Lots of people think unions are pretty much kaput, but that’s not so, especially in the public sector, where union membership has been a bit north of one-third of the public-sector workforce, and remarkably steady, since the late 1970s (private sector coverage, by contrast, is 6.5%; see figure). That’s why the Janus case being argued at the Supreme Court today is so vitally important. Its outcome will either strengthen or weaken public sector unions, and if the result is the latter, it will have political repercussions far beyond the voice of workers in their workplaces.

 

The Janus case is about whether public sector unions can require “agency fees.” Such fees, also called “fair share” fees, are paid to the union to cover the cost of bargaining on behalf of all workers in the bargaining unit, not just union members. Absent such fees, there is a clear “free rider” problem wherein those benefiting from collective bargaining activities on their behalf pay no costs to cover the union’s work. In that sense, Janus is kind of the public-sector corollary of the misnamed state “right-to-work” laws about which I’ve written elsewhere.

The named plaintiff, Mark Janus, is an Illinois social worker covered under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the public workers’ union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). He’s not an AFSCME member, but he’s required to pay a fee to cover the cost of his representation. Note that such fees can only be used for this purpose, and not for, say, political activities by the union.

The Trump administration is supporting Janus, hoping to persuade the court to overturn its 1977 ruling allowing states to require fair share fees for government employees. Two dozen states and the District of Columbia require such payments, covering roughly 5 million public-sector workers.

You can read up on the technical background in various places, but if you want to know what’s really going on here, you have to read this NYT expose of the very deep-pocketed, anti-union forces behind the Janus case:

In the summer of 2016, government workers in Illinois received a mailing that offered them tips on how to leave their union. By paying a so-called fair-share fee instead of standard union dues, the mailing said, they would no longer be bound by union rules and could not be punished for refusing to strike.

The mailing, sent by a group called the Illinois Policy Institute, may have seemed like disinterested advice. In fact, it was one prong of a broader campaign against public-sector unions, backed by some of the biggest donors on the right. It is an effort that will reach its apex on Monday, when the Supreme Court hears a case that could cripple public-sector unions by allowing the workers they represent to avoid paying fees.

The piece carefully goes through this “broader campaign,” which has strong, and obvious, political motivations. The reason the SCOTUS is hearing Janus today is simple. It is because there is no single, larger, unified, better-resourced, pro-worker political voice in American politics today than that of the unions. Obviously, they’re far from alone, but even in their diminished capacity, this remains the case, and that flat public sector line in the figure above is a main reason why.

Will a win for the plaintiff in Janus change that? Well, here’s a political science finding mentioned in the Times’ piece:

A recent paper by Mr. Hertel-Fernandez and two colleagues may foretell what Democrats can expect if Mr. Uihlein and his fellow philanthropists [the conservatives backers of Janus–JB] succeed. It found that the Democratic share of the presidential vote dropped by an average of 3.5 percentage points after the passage of so-called right-to-work laws allowing employees to avoid paying union fees. That is larger than Democrats’ margin of defeat in several states that could have reversed their last three presidential losses.

So, attention must be paid. The court considered a similar case in 2016, when it split 4-4 following the death of Justice Scalia, but there’s considerable concern as to the outcome given the makeup of the current court. A lot hangs in the balance.

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Reposted from On the Economy

Jared Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow.  From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Bernstein was a senior economist and the director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of deputy chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. He is the author and co-author of numerous books, including “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?” and nine editions of “The State of Working America.”

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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