By Blair Bertaccini
AFSCME Connecticut Local 226 (retired)
Sometime in February 2018 the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Janus vs. AFSCME case and will most probably render a decision in June or at the latest in October of this year. Public sector unions are expecting an unfavorable decision given the current composition of the Supreme Court and the judicial history of the five conservative members of the court. The decision will most likely make every public sector bargaining unit in the United States an open shop, abolishing agency fees for employees who do not sign a membership card and allowing all current members to drop out of the union if they wish.
Most public sector unions are currently conducting a campaign to sign up current fee payers as union members and/or speaking to current members about the upcoming decision and its implications. Even if these efforts are highly successful, all public sector unions will suffer some level of drop in income due to the decision. This expected shortfall has caused some of them to enact budget reductions and cutbacks in staff. Some are so focused on their internal campaigns to retain members that have stopped even considering conducting campaigns to fight back against other right wing assaults on the US working class, i.e. the recent Republican tax legislation and are content to issue statements expressing their opposition or at best engage in small symbolic actions.
Panic and resignation seem to be the reactions to this impending major change in the legal field in which public unions must operate. Whether this change proves to be an existential attack on the labor movement leading to its sidelining or elimination as a relevant force in the political economy of the United States could be decided within a few years after the decision.
Many union activists are asking what the response should be to this decision, what must we change to not only just insure our survival but turn us into a powerful movement that will unite workers across the country to fight for and win working class power.
To answer that question we need to look at what got into a situation in which a Supreme Court decision could threaten our existence.
For too long most unions have depended on legal frameworks: grievance procedures, arbitration, NLRB or state labor relation board rulings, court cases, passage or defeat of legislation as the main battle ground for winning (or more recently losing) better working conditions, wages and benefits for their members. These forums should be part of any union’s strategy but they are no substitute for militant tactics and actions conducted in the workplace.
Many public sector unions gave up the right to strike in order to win the right to collectively bargain for their members and often fight to preserve a binding arbitration system which is stacked against them. One of the first tasks activists should fight for is the restoration of the fundamental right to strike in those states in which they do not have it.
For union members to have allegiance and investment in their union they must see it as an organization that values their ideas and participation. They must see their fellow members as people who will protect them and fight with them to win a better life on the job and in their community. This is what solidarity means.
We must not only have solidarity at the workplace but amongst all workers as a class of and for itself. Many unions are afraid that they will not be able to function with less staff, believing that their members will be incapable of survival if left to be more self-sufficient. This will prove to be true if the current campaigns to retain members do little or nothing to develop and find worksite leaders and militants who can organize and fight. If the campaigns are basically transactional, i.e. keep paying dues so you can have benefits, modest wage increases and grievance protections, then their efficacy is dubious. Many unions have suffered recent setbacks in all those areas, so members will be asked to keep paying dues to keep retreating. Ultimately how convincing will that be?
William Z. Foster developed the idea of the militant minority almost a century ago, but it is still relevant today. A militant minority spread out within a union local’s worksite is the best insurance to maintain a union in an open shop. Most union members neither have the consciousness, time, nor will to be day to day militants within their unions but they might follow and support such leaders if they are presented with a plan in a forthright manner that explains what is at stake, why their participation is required and the risks involved.
How such a strategy will be applied will depend on each local union’s circumstances, but what must unite them is an overall plan to grow and increase power among all workers, not necessarily by bringing them in as members, but including them in campaigns to fight corporate power and win tangible gains. Such campaigns must use the tactics of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with a system whose rules and structure were designed by our class enemies to control us and keep us from threatening the wealth and power of the few who rob us of our labor to benefit themselves.
This means militant use of these tactics in the class war in which we find ourselves. Too often civil disobedience as it currently used in the labor movement has degenerated into a choreographed affair in which arrangements are made with the police prior to the demonstration and there is little or no inconvenience inflicted on our enemies. If our class enemies inflict pain and disruption on our lives, we must do the same to them.
Fighting for the working class and making clear to our fellow workers what that fight means needs to be the response to the Janus decision.
This article first appeared in Labor Today, www.labortoday.us
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