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Friedrichs v. CTA: the Supreme Court Case That Could Destroy Labor Unions as We Know Them

By Andrew Stewart - CounterPunch, September 18, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

This Presidential campaign has become even more of a media spectacle than the last two were, which in and of itself proves our electoral system is broken because the voters treat governance like professional wrestling. The Republican field is so close to a Vince McMahon Slam-O-Rama match that we do not even need to come up with silly stage names for these doofuses.

But what stuns me most about the Democratic field is that, even in the midst of our kinda-sorta dialogue about democratic socialism brought about by the Sanders dog-and-pony show, not a single candidate has yet to talk about the cornerstone of a socialist society, our barely-breathing labor unions. We have heard news stories about everyone’s favorite walrus, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, coming down from on high and reminding the masses that he, not they, get to choose whether the unions endorse Sanders or Clinton. But the elephant in the room which no one is talking about is the Friedrichs v. CTA Supreme Court case, which has seen the Petitioner Brief filed on September 4, 2015, followed by nineteen amicus curiae briefs on September 10 and. For those just tuning in, this is the case that will destroy labor unions as we know them in our country. This omission from our national dialogue is analogous to the three months before 9-11 when everyone was telling President Bush that something was going to happen but he was too busy farting around on his ranch to care.

For the uninitiated, the Friedrichs case follows close on the heels of the Harris v. Quinn decision, an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that laid out for the so-called ‘Right to Work’ anti-union movement exactly what would be necessary for the Court to destroy labor unions. In his majority opinion, he explained that the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling contained some ‘anomalies’ regarding free speech. In the 1977 case, the Burger court ruled that unions had the right to collect dues from paychecks, collectively bargain for employees, and endorse political candidates. Friedrichs was customized to reverse that decision and turn the entire public sector into a Right to Work bastion overnight. In the ‘Questions Presented’ section of the Petitioner’s Brief, they serve up a century of labor battles on the executioner’s slab with glee:

* Whether Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), should be overruled and public- sector “agency shop” arrangements invalidated under the First Amendment.

* Whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech.

Based on the votes in Harris, it is abundantly clear that the usual suspects, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Roberts, will be in the majority and those who say otherwise are simply out of their minds. In the span of mere minutes, middle-class jobs will go from some of the most coveted in the job market to having the same security and value as those of McDonalds.

There are a few things that need to happen to lessen a powerful blow to a significant segment of the population. First, labor activists and organizers need to begin conversations with their public employee comrades now. Not tomorrow, not when the Court begins hearing the case, now. They need to get over their left wing prejudices towards religious bodies and talk to every priest, minister, rabbi, imam, and whoever else they can find to build old-fashioned united fronts in their communities. This thing is going to be a painful, hard ruling that will terrify those affected. There are a lot of coalitions that need to be built fast and solidly.

Second, public sector employees need to be encouraged and prodded to get involved in their local Industrial Workers of the World branch. Dual-card unionism is a very old principle of Wobbly activism. The Supreme Court decision is going after the right of unions to garnish wages from paychecks to pay dues. The Wobblies have held true to the model of voluntary dues for a century now, undermining the Court’s logic. Interested parties can contact the IWW through their website, www.iww.org. There is also a FaceBook group set up to serve as a clearinghouse for information and community coordination, Ask Me About the SCOTUS Friedrichs Case.

Third, leftists who have any sense about them need to get to these Democratic Party fiascoes and ask every candidate and elected official about what they will do regarding the Friedrichs case. Obviously campaign promises are a lot of sweet nothings, especially at this stage of the game. But that is not the point. It is about making other people in your community talk about the case, making the candidates talk about it would be a nice after-effect but it is not necessary. Every person in your neighborhood needs to know about this thing and how to beat it. There is a great joy to be had in heckling the candidates with faux-questions that point out their hypocrisy, but this is simply too vital to pass up, especially when one recalls that the March on Washington contained a significant contingent of union workers and that we are only now seeing labor unions in the US coming out for Palestinian liberation.

On 9-11, it was abundantly clear to everyone that the President and his minions had totally blown it. They had the intel at hand, including reports that said the attacks would involve flying airplanes into building with big and bold capital letters. Fourteen years afterward, we do not have the same apparatus at hand to pick up the ball after the fact. This is a dangerous and hard battle, but it is one we can win.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and independent journalist who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.