Democracy and economic progress took a beating today, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a blatantly partisan 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME, the nation’s highest court struck down 40 years of established workplace protections. Those protections allowed state and local government employees the right to sign collective bargaining agreements requiring workers who benefit from union representation to pay their fair share of fees to support that representation.
The decision is bad for working people and even worse for our democratic institutions. Until today’s decision, public sector employees could come together as part of labor unions to collectively bargain with their employers for better wages and working conditions. These unions worked to represent and benefit all employees in the shop, even those folks who didn’t want to join the union. In exchange for the benefits of representation, all employees paid dues to these labor organizations—an arrangement called “fair share fees.” And in turn, unions had the numbers and dollars necessary to better bargain with employers—a win-win.
But thanks to the Supreme Court, a win-win becomes a lose-lose for working people. Without fair share fees, the folks who benefit from union representation will no longer pay for those benefits—they’ll be able to “free-ride” on those employees who choose to join and pay dues. Almost certainly, this will result in fewer employees joining unions and much slimmer resources available to support organizing public sector workers and building their power, both in the workplaces and in the political arena.
Practically speaking, this will make it harder for state and local government employees to negotiate for better wages and safer working conditions. These public sector workers already earn nearly $3,000 less than their private sector counterparts every year. Without strong capacity to come together and bargain with their bosses, state and local government employees will only see their pay shrivel in comparison to what they could earn in the private sector.
As a result, the consequences are both predictable and devastating for growing wages and improving access to the middle class. After all, it’s not like North Carolina needs anything else holding back wages—the median household in the Tar Heel state earns about $7,000 less in income every year than the national average.
Even worse, the decision will especially hurt communities of color, which rely disproportionately on employment in the public sector. State and local government jobs are frequently the only meaningful pathway to middle class wages for people of color, who have historically faced discrimination and earned lower wages than their white counterparts in the private sector. African American workers already earn $6,500 less every year than their white colleagues. Putting that into context, an African American would have to work 12 years to earn what a white employee earns in 10 years. Weakening public sector unions means weakening a core source of good jobs for people of color, which will only serve to make these racial disparities in wages even worse.
Working people will also suffer from reduced effectiveness in government services. Lower wages always means more employee turn-over and a harder time hiring. The consequence is obvious—fewer experienced and trained employees will result in crumbling roads, fewer police, spottier garbage and recycling pick-up, and slower permits issued for builders and businesses.
Worst of all, this decision will undermine our democracy by taking away a critically important path for building the power of working people to participate in our democracy. By crippling the voices of working people to use dues-money in public debate, the Supreme Court has left the political arena clear to be dominated by the deep pockets of big corporations and wealthy donors, who can spend unlimited sums to achieve their special interest goals.
Repeated polling already shows that large majority of Americans feel like their voices don’t matter and that their government is out of touch with their needs. In today’s poisonous decision, the Supreme Court validated every one of those concerns and made it crystal clear that they are only interested in listening to voices of those with power, privilege, and wealth.
If the past century has made anything clear, it’s that when the voices of working people diminish, when more and more groups in our society come to feel politics is a rigged game they can’t win, trust in our democratic institutions withers. And that leads us down a dark road that the Supreme Court would have been wiser to avoid.
If there is any silver lining to this otherwise disastrous decision, it is that workers are already doubling down on organizing and mobilizing, both in the workplace and in our politics. Thousands of workers have come together in the last year, sticking together to bargain for more democracy and better wages.
Despite the Supreme Court, the fight for good jobs, decent wages, and stronger democracy will continue.