Union Leadership, Experts See Long-Term Threat to Labor in Supreme Court Case

A sticker for the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers reads “Solidarity-Negotiation-Progress” near the bag-checking station at Lamont Library on Nov. 10. 2015.

National labor unions are anticipated to take a significant hit in a case on public-sector unions that the Supreme Court heard earlier this week and this could indirectly effect Harvard unions, according to labor experts and leaders of two of the University's largest unions.

The key issue in the case—Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—is whether objectors to public-sector unions can opt out of paying dues. Existing precedent allows unions to require all members of the bargaining unit to pay in exchange for representation.

Former National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV and University of Oregon Professor of Labor Education Gordon Lafer predicted the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME will “undercut” that legal standard.

AFSCME—which represents more than 1.6 million employees nationwide—serves as an umbrella organization for thousands of local unions in the US, including Harvard’s largest union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

Though the Supreme Court’s ruling would only directly affect public sector unions’ ability to collect dues from members of a bargaining unit, both Gould and Lafler agreed a ruling against AFSCME could also affect the future of private-sector unions like those at Harvard in the long-term.

Specifically, the reasoning in the Court’s majority opinion might lay a foundation for future challenges to the obligations of those who are included in a union’s bargaining unit, but do not support the union, according to Gould.

“It’s quite possible that an issue that we had thought was already resolved under the National Labor Relations Act itself might reemerge, and that is whether non-union objectors have the obligation to opt out,” Gould said.

Representatives from Harvard unions, including HUCTW, said the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME could extend to their unions in the long-term.

HUCTW President Carrie Barbash said the union stands in support of their parent organization.

“AFSCME, in the past, has asked us to help out with various campaigns, and we would be happy to help them in any way that they ask,” Barbash said.

Edward B. Childs, a dining services worker in Adams House and chief steward of UNITE HERE Local 26, said a decision in favor of Janus could have an impact on his union’s funding.

UNITE HERE, which represents Harvard University Dining Services workers, receives part of its funding from the general fund that its parent union, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, retains. That fund would be weakened if objectors to the public sector unions affiliated with AFL-CIO are allowed to refuse to pay dues.

“This will impede our ability to struggle on issues and also organize new members,” Childs said.

Childs also connected the Janus suit to what he says is a longer-term effort to undermini labor unions.

“The long-term impact is that what we see is that the union movement is under a direct attack. We don’t think AFSCME is the target, we think the whole union movement is the target,” Childs said.

Both Gould and Lafer agreed that the impact of the Janus case would extend beyond AFSCME.

According to Gould, the implications of a ruling in favor of Janus would be a “major loss,” symbolically and politically, for labor movements nationwide.

“The public sector unions are the great strength of the labor movement in this country,” Gould said.

Lafer wrote in an email that all sectors of the labor movement would feel the “reverberations” of a decision in favor of Janus.

“The legal and regulatory agenda that protects [private-sector unions] is secured by collective political action of both public- and private-sector unions, so they'll be affected as well,” Lafer wrote.

Some HUCTW members attended a rally which coincided with the Supreme Court’s Monday hearing of oral arguments for the case. Amanda H. Wininger, a member of HUCTW’s executive board who attended the march, said that, though HUCTW is not a public sector union, the union “stand[s] in solidarity” with other labor unions that would be affected directly by the ruling.

“We have close ties to public sector unions through our parent union and also our umbrella organization, the New England Organizing Project,” Wininger said. “This isn’t people we don’t know or talk to—this affects people we work with and are close to.”

“You can’t outlaw community, you know?” she added.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.


Recommended Articles