The New Year's Resolution for Big Business: Debilitate Public Workers and Their Unions

US Supreme Court
US Supreme Court

In many ways, the modern conservative movement, with its fusion of big business interests and culture warriors, funded by wealthy businesspeople and ruthless in its politics, was born in California in the 1930s. Infuriated by New Deal policies and the rising power of the state's agricultural workers fighting for a living wage, powerful business interests went on the attack and laid the strategic and philosophical foundation for today's conservative juggernaut.

Now, 80 years later, California is once again at the center of the fight over the power of workers to control their own destiny and to secure the dignity and security that all middle-class Americans seek.

This time, though, the effort to undercut the economic and political power of working people is coming insidiously via the legal system in the form of a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in January.

Conservative interests have long understood that their ultimate success depends on capturing all levers of power, including the judiciary. Today, the Court is in the hands of a narrow majority that researchers call the most conservative in modern history. And movement conservatives, energized and funded by their pro-corporate allies, know a good thing when they see it. For decades, they've been herding high-stakes cases to the Court into the waiting arms of their ideological allies on the bench.

The targets in Friedrichs, though, aren't Depression-era farm laborers, they're 21st-century public employees and the unions that represent them.

In the same way that workers in the '30s were portrayed as subversive un-American radicals, there has been a concerted, coordinated effort by conservative forces to demonize public employees and turn them into pariahs, worthy of scorn and contempt. In some places, this hostility takes the form of aggressive attacks in state legislatures on the collective bargaining process and the unions that represent public employees. But for several years, the battlefield has also moved into the federal courts in an effort to take advantage of the Roberts Court's pro-corporate conservatism.

On the surface, the Friedrichs case is about whether states can require everyone who benefits from the collective bargaining efforts of a public employee union, including workers who are not union members, to pay their fair share of the costs of that bargaining.

This is an issue the Court already settled in the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That decision held that public workers who benefit directly from union representation can be required to share in the cost of collective bargaining and employee representation. But, importantly, non-union members do not have to pay for the union's political activity, which is funded separately. It's a simple principle: if a union's negotiations on your behalf increase the value of your paycheck, then you can't ride along for free.

Not coincidentally, unions' ability to recoup the costs of bargaining relates directly to their ability to remain viable as institutions and to advocate effectively for working people. Right-wing groups don't bring these cases just because they think firefighters and sanitation workers are overpaid. It's also not just a result of their fervent hope that governments can become so hobbled and inefficient that alienated taxpayers will stop supporting them, thus turning essential public services into privatized profit centers.

No, this is about the same thing that motivated anti-labor conservatives in the 1930s: killing off the source of the collective power of everyday people, and clearing the field for their unrestrained agenda of greed. The fact that a great many government employees, such as nurses, teachers, school bus drivers, and school cafeteria workers are people of color and women is not incidental. Economic and political disenfranchisement is the end game.

If the Supreme Court were operating as it should, this case would quickly fail since the Abood precedent is clear. But this Court has not let precedent stand in the way of its pro-corporate agenda before, and it may not now.

If the Court sides with the special interests that ginned up this case, the end result is an economically and politically weakened labor movement and a significantly undermined collective bargaining process. But you'd be affected, too. If public employees can't bargain effectively, wages and benefits in all sectors will likely fall. Finding qualified public workers will be harder. Inevitably, the quality of the services will slip. And the aspirations of American workers will take another hit.

We live in a country where billionaires and huge corporations spend unimaginable amounts to capture the levers of power and deform our democratic institutions to serve their own ends. It would be tragic if the Supreme Court ignored its precedents, turned its back on common sense, and perverted core constitutional principles to serve as co-conspirators in the destruction of the American middle class and facilitate the deliberate weakening of one of the few institutions dedicated to protecting the rights of working people.

The case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association isn't just about collecting union dues from public workers; it's about what kind of country we are going to be.