‘Harris’ Decision Signals Need for New Labor Fight Plan

Perhaps the best way to think about the recent Supreme Court decision gutting the rights of unions to collect fees from so-called free-rider employees is as a near final, but not fatal uppercut in the middle rounds of a boxing match.

The punch was devastating. It has staggered unions. But it does not have to be a knockout blow. Unions can take this decision and use it to reinvigorate the labor movement, or they can continue to pursue a relatively narrow legislative and legal agenda in an atmosphere that has grown increasingly hostile to the notion of workers organizing to protect themselves.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for legislative and legal efforts, as there is for the kind of client-based unionism that has been the norm for much of the last 60 years, a unionism that focuses on providing benefits and protections to workers in individual workplaces. But these can only be effective if they are accompanied by aggressive organizing efforts like those that gave birth to the modern American union in the first place.

That does not mean the June 30 decision in Harris v. Quinn will not have a chilling effect on the labor movement.

The case was brought by a group of health aides in Illinois who argued that agency fees – the fees charged to non-union members who are covered by union contracts – violate their free-speech and association rights under the First Amendment. The group, as reported by the Associated Press, objected to an Illinois law that designated the 26,000 home-health workers as “state employees eligible for collective bargaining.” That meant they would pay union dues. Those who opted out of joining the union would have to pay a fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining and other union benefits.

The workers, represented by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, objected to the fee. As the AP reports, they argued “they are not government employees capable of being unionized in the traditional sense,” and are essentially private contractors who “work in people’s homes, not on government property, and are not supervised by other state employees.”

The case, in theory, is limited to this particular class of state employees. But given the recent assaults on unions by conservative elected officials – passage of right-to-work laws in previously pro-unions states, laws severely limiting the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively and the siphoning off of pension funds for other uses and then blaming unions for unfunded obligations – no one should be fooled by the Justice Samuel Alito’s seemingly narrow ruling.

This case is part of a larger assault on the labor movement and it signals that unions – whose electoral power has waned dramatically – can no longer rely on the courts to protect the rights of workers. Essentially, the refs have been bought off and its time to stop playing by the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

Unions and labor, more broadly, must go in another direction. The efforts of fast-food and WalMart workers, for instance, who have been organizing and striking, offer one model. By striking at multiple locations and by engaging with consumers at those stores, these efforts change minds. It may be a slow, incremental change in the way we think about those jobs, but the change is happening. And it is directly responsible for the success of minimum wage initiatives, and new sick-time and wage-theft rules around the country, including several that have passed in so-called red states.

Granted, these have been small victories – there is not a local or state minimum wage in the country that approaches a real living wage – but they are victories that can be used as a foundation for a rebirth of the labor movement.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; and hank.kalet

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014

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