Labor pains: Unions rally Downtown as Supreme Court weighs future of organized labor

Union members rallied at Foley Square on Feb. 24 before the Supreme Court began hearing a case that will determine the future of organized labor.
Photo by Sydney Pereira


Days before the nation’s highest court began hearing a landmark case that could decimate public-sector unions, thousands of union members rallied in Foley Square on Feb. 24 to plead the case for organized labor.

A decision against the unions in Janus v. AFSCME would throttle the voice of their members, warned Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when he addressed the rally.

Photo by Sydney Pereira
Gov. Cuomo warned union members that the case of Janus v. AFSCME is an attempt to “silence your voice.”

“They want to silence your voice politically,” Gov. Cuomo told crowd. “You know why? Because you speak for the worker.”

Mayor de Blasio, State Attorney Eric Schneiderman, and several union leaders also addressed the Downtown rally, which coincided with pro-union rallies across the country ahead of the pivotal high court case.

Hanging in the balance are the “agency fees” that many states allow public-sector unions to collect from non-members to cover the cost of collective bargaining activities that determine the pay and benefits of members and non-members alike.

“This would kill the life of unions,” said Andre Johannes an inspector for the city’s Department of Health for more than 20 years, who fears that without a strong union bargaining for him and his co-workers, he would have the same quality healthcare benefits.

Janus v. AFSCME pits an Illinois social worker, Mark Janus, who works in the state’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services, against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Janus argues his First Amendment rights are being violated when he’s required to pay dues to the union, as he does not always agree with what the union is doing.

A win for Janus would overturn the precedent set more than 40 years ago in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which established that public sector unions could charge non-members a fee to cover collective bargaining activities — though not political contributions — since non-members directly benefit from the unions’ negotiations on behalf of all employees.

Union leaders warn of a “free-rider effect” if agency fees are abolished, in which an ever-higher proportion of workers opt not to join unions to avoid dues, because they know they will still benefit from the work the members are paying for. One union head jabbed Janus for taking union benefits he’s not willing to pay for.

“I don’t know Mr. Janus, but I’m wondering if he continues to use his union healthcare,” said Mario Cilento, the president of New York State’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. “Does he continue to do that? Or is he giving that away?”

Cilento pointed out that Janus agreed to work for the state of Illinois knowing that the employees were unionized, yet now he doesn’t want to pay the dues.

“You can’t have it both ways here, and that’s what I’m saying,” Cilento said. “It’s a matter of fairness.”

Cilento also argued that the Janus v. AFSCME case was less about one state worker’s freedom of speech than it is a part of a long-running and well-funded campaign by conservative business interests to destroy organized labor in America.

“It’s not just about Mr. Janus here, it’s a right-wing conservative attack on the voice of working men and women.”

This is actually the second recent Supreme Court case seeking to end union agency fees. Two years ago, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association brought the same challenge, but the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia just a month before the case was decided left the court evenly divided 4-4. Assuming the justices haven’t changed their minds on the question, the deciding vote in Janus v. AFSCME will fall to Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch.

Photo by Sydney Pereira
Workers from many different unions turned out in solidarity with public-sector unions.

New York State has the highest percentage of union membership in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a variety of unions and labor organizations turned out for the rally — not just public-sector unions.

Looming over the Saturday rally nearly as much as the Supreme Court case was an ongoing private-sector union dispute.

Workers for cable company Spectrum have been on strike for nearly a year after the company refused to negotiate with their union. More than 1,800 workers with Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been waiting for Spectrum to negotiate a new contract with them for two years. And union boosters who turned out for the Foley Square rally said they saw the Supreme Court case as a harbinger for the fate of all of organized labor.

“If they lose, we all lose,” said John McSpedon, a retired electrician who came to the rally with his nephew, Danny Lyons, in solidarity with the Spectrum employees and public-sector union members.

Union advocates see Janus v. AFSCME as an existential attack on organized labor, making it more likely for non-members to opt out of all dues while still enjoying union benefits. The effect would be plummeting membership, and as a result, funding, kneecapping union’s ability to advocate for workers and increasing the power of big business to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.

“It’s taking us back 100 years,” said Frederick Kowal, president of the State University of New York’s union, United University Professions. “The whole case is a sham.”

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