The ruling of the Supreme Court’s conservative gang of five in Harris v. Quinn is a direct attack on the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively.
The ruling, in a case invented by the right-wing National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, is but another salvo in the furious corporate assault on unions that has been waged over the last 30 years. If this country has any chance of rebuilding an economy that works for the many and not just few, we need a counter offensive to reaffirm the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. And in response to the usurpations of the right-wing tong on the Court, President Obama should use his power to lead the way.
Unions: Essential to a Vibrant Middle Class
The extreme Gilded Age inequality that the U.S. now suffers has many sires. But one major factor is clear: the decline of the unions and the ability of workers to bargain collectively. The broad middle class that emerged in America after World War II was founded on a union movement that represented over one-third of the private workforce. Unions were able to negotiate industry-wide agreements. To compete for good employees, nonunion employers had to adjust to those agreements. Unions helped lift wages, defend the 40-hour week and overtime, and secure benefits like health care and pensions. The worker voice at the workplace provided a check on executive excess and folly. For 30 years, America grew together – enjoying a widely shared prosperity that was the envy of the world.
Then, with the stagflation of the 1970s, corporations and the right unleashed a furious assault against unions. President Reagan’s firing of the PATCO workers can be seen as the opening salvo. Global trade and tax rules encouraged corporations to move good jobs abroad, or use the threat of moving to squelch bargaining. Strikes were met by firing workers. Labor laws were trampled and enforcement agencies gutted. Labor law reform was blocked.
Unions now represent only about 7 percent of the private workforce. And now the right has unleashed an assault on the one growing sector of organizing – public employee unions – from teachers to nurses to home health care workers.
As unions declined, inequality soared. Corporate profits now are near record levels as a percentage of gross domestic product; wages at record lows. CEO pay has soared; working families have struggled simply to stay afloat. The top 1 percent captured an obscene 95 percent of the income growth in the society coming out of the Great Recession.
Contingent – part-time, low-pay, contract, no-benefit – jobs have proliferated as unions have declined. Wage theft has become an epidemic. Pensions are increasingly rare; companies force workers to pay ever-higher portions of their health care. Mass employers like Wal-Mart develop business models that assume their workers will survive on taxpayer-funded food stamps and low-wage federal and state tax breaks. America has grown apart, with the American dream becoming a distant memory.
The Conservative Justices: Another Low Blow
The gang of five’s decision in Harris v. Quinn is particularly noxious. Here badly paid home health care workers organized to create a union with broad majority support. The union then represented the entire workforce in negotiations with the state, nearly doubling their hour wages, gaining health insurance benefits as well as professional training support.
The Koch-funded anti-labor front, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund, cobbled together a group of workers who didn’t want to join the union, nor pay even a pro-rata share of fees for the union representation that they had benefited from directly. This fee was lower than union dues, explicitly excluding support for the political activities of the union. The gang of five ruled that the right of the democratic majority to form a union was overruled by the First Amendment interests of those who object – even though they benefited directly from the union”s representation – and continued to collect the benefits won in negotiations.
The majority opinion – scorning decades of precedent – tried to limit its scope, by arguing that home health care workers weren’t full-fledged public employees, since while they were paid by Medicaid, they were employed and could be dismissed by the patients that they served. But Harris v. Quinn clearly is but the next chapter of the right wing’s efforts to traduce the workers’ right to organize.
Time to Stand Up
America will never be able to rebuild a broad middle class if we don’t revive unions and defend the ability of workers to have a voice at the workplace without workplace strife. It is long past time for responsible leaders across the society to stand up for this basic right.
President Obama can lead the way by following the precedent set by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. President Roosevelt informed companies vying for contracts that they had to give workers a seat at the table, enabling them to bargain collectively without costly strife at a time of war. “Labor peace” requirements traded no-strike pledges for promises on union membership. Aggressive worker organizing insured that unions gained members and scope throughout the war.
President Obama should declare that this country has a fundamental stake in shared prosperity, and that giving workers a voice is key to that. He has already celebrated Costco as a model employer. Costco allows its workers to organize and bargain collectively. It pays a living wage with good benefits. It adheres to workplace and labor laws. And it pays its CEO well, but without an obscene disparity from its workers – 48 times the median pay compared to Wal-Mart’s CEO making some 800 times the median pay.
The president could spread the Costco model through his own pen. Demos, the public policy institute and Change to Win, a union coalition, have called upon him to issue a “Good Jobs Executive Order.” This could give priority in government contracts to employers who:
(1)allow their employees a seat at the table to bargain collectively
(2)provide living wages and decent benefits
(3)respect fair labor standards and workplace laws
(4)and eschew extreme CEO-worker pay disparities.
The government purchases over $1.3 trillion of goods and services a year. Demos estimates that a Good Jobs Executive Order could help put 20 million workers and their families on the road to middle-class jobs.
The president also would be sending a clear signal to public and private leaders on the importance of unions and fairness. Governors and mayors could adopt similar regulations. Consumers could reward Good Job Employers and discriminate against those like Wal-Mart that force taxpayers to subsidize their workers. His action could well launch a much-needed counterattack against the right’s war on workers.
America’s favorite billionaire, Warren Buffett, famously said about class warfare: “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that is making war and we’re winning.“ Of course there has been a right-wing corporate assault on unions. It has been winning, and America has paid the costs. Now it is time to stand up and strike back.
Last year President Obama issued an executive order requiring government contractors to pay a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. Now he should act to issue the Good Jobs Executive Order as a centerpiece of the drive to rebuild an economy that works for working people.