The death of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the holiday weekend has given public sector unions a stay of execution. The consensus now is that Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, a landmark labor rights case, will be a 4-4 tie at the Supreme Court, meaning either that the lower court decisions in favor of unions’ rights to collect fair share fees would stand, or the case will be reargued in a future session. For now, though, we have some breathing space.
Unions can still lose, but the important point is that losing doesn’t depend on what the Court does. We will lose if we fail to learn the lessons of these few months of panic, a panic that has shown both the depths of strength and the glaring weaknesses in the American labor movement. Three lessons stand out.
First, we have learned that too many of labor’s leaders are shockingly ignorant about what it is that unions really are. A few months ago, AFSCME released a web video about right-to-work, comparing it to someone who goes out with friends to a restaurant and then refuses to chip in for their share of the bill. It’s a horrible analogy, wrong at the most fundamental levels.
Unions are not merely, or primarily, voluntary associations of like-minded individuals engaged in optional activities. Unions are first and foremost collective bargaining agents. Unions are formed in response to the undeniable truth that no individual – however smart, connected, or lucky – can bargain over their working conditions on an equal footing with an employer. We need to band together to have even a chance of fair treatment. The collective nature of unions is not a bug or a glitch – it defines who we are. Unions play with fire if they appropriate free-market explanations of unions, as if to suggest that the only reason one should join a union is their own personal, limited self-interest.
Similarly, it is wrong for unions to encourage the belief that, should Friedrichs have been lost, the real problem would have been those individuals who chose not to join the union. Unions that were in danger of losing 30, 40 or 50 percent of their membership in the wake of Friedrichs should not blame those who would have left. They need to take a long, hard look and ask what they need to do to build the kind of union that represents everyone, one that all but the most die-hard anti-unionists would want to join.
Entrenched union leaders around the country, understandably beaten down by years of fighting just to stay above water, need to rediscover the basic creed of collective bargaining: it doesn’t have to be this way. If workers see their union come straight to them, talk with them and respond to their needs by building unions that fight for all, then they in turn will stay loyal to the union even if the bad times come.
Second, we need to learn (or admit) that money matters to unions. Since our key opponents are often driven by pure, unfiltered greed, it is no surprise that most of us in the labor movement try to pretend that money doesn’t matter very much. If only it were so.
See the highly scientific graph above.
It would only have gotten worse. Power can be attained via organized people or organized money, but you need a little bit of one to make the other work. Even now, in the strongest unions in the most pro-union states, scarcity of resources is one of the most urgent problems.
During the preceding months, I heard from union comrades up and down the country about the challenges their unions were facing in trying to redirect their limited resources to countering the threat of Friedrichs. Intense organizing to increase membership and deepen union ties was supposed to be the top priority, but it strained the resources available for bargaining contracts, protecting members in need, and addressing the myriad other challenges every union faces every day.
The facile response – one which this author gave for many years – is to get on one’s high horse and airily denounce unions’ failure to switch from a service model to an organizing model. As far as pronouncements go it is well and good, but as a practical response to labor’s crisis of resources it is useless.
Those who advocate this most loudly find themselves trying to square the circle, pretending as though unions will remain strong if the people who pay the dues aren’t being represented. One such chestnut is the absurd claim that organizing unions don’t need to file grievances because the boss will relent in the face of union power. This puts the cart before the horse. In those rare places where union density is at the saturation level, and where the workers can cripple the employer faster than their strike funds will dry up, this will work, but as a cure-all for unions that are miles away from such power it offers nothing. For the forseeable future, most unions will need to balance service and organizing tasks, and that requires resources.
Union leaders – from the local level to the national – need to make the politically unpopular decision to tell the truth to their members: unions need more money. Yes, sometimes that money is allocated incompetently, but wanting a union to be more efficient is not the same thing as saying it should have fewer resources. We will never build the people power the labor movement needs if we don’t have the financial resources to help us.
Finally, we need to learn that the existential threat to unions isn’t going away. We remain as we have for years: one court decision, one bad national election, or one right-wing victory away from annihilation.
The old saying is never to let a good crisis go to waste. The American labor movement has been in a crisis my entire life. The crisis got worse in 2010 (Walker), worse again in 2013 (Michigan) and almost became critical here in 2016, but it’s always been here. It’s time we started acting like we were in a crisis, not just in the most crucial moments, but in everything the labor movement does. We have to face up to the threat if we ever hope to overcome it.
In the English Civil War, the parliamentarians against the tyrannical King Charles I knew that the king’s power rested on the fundamental structures of society. As the Earl of Manchester put it, “We may beat the king 99 times, and yet he will still be king. If he beats us but once, we shall be hanged.”
So it is with us. We can beat back the Koch brothers and their ilk 99 times, but they remain billionaires wielding amazing power over politicians, business leaders and the media. Yet with five votes in the Supreme Court they could have crippled us, quite possibly beyond our capacity to recover. The victories we can win do not – now – have that power. It will take all we have, for years to come, simply to stave off defeat.
Let’s get to it. Organize, or go under.
Dave Kamper is a union organizer in the Twin Cities and a member of OPEIU Local 12 and the National Writers Union. The views expressed in this essay are his alone. He can be reached by e-mail or on Twitter at @dskamper.