Workers Vanguard No. 1049

11 July 2014


Threat to Public-Sector Labor

Supreme Court Clobbers Home Health Care Workers Unions

The June 30 Supreme Court ruling in the case Harris v. Quinn is the latest blow in the capitalist state’s war against organized labor. In a five-to-four majority, the court overturned lower court decisions by excluding home health care workers from agency shop arrangements, in which workers who benefit from union representation but are not themselves members must pay fees to the union. The Illinois plaintiffs, including Pamela Harris, an in-home caregiver for her disabled son, were represented by the anti-union National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation bankrolled by the notoriously right-wing billionaire Koch brothers and the Walton family (of Wal-Mart).

The Supreme Court ruling singled out the union rights of an especially vulnerable section of the public-sector workforce as a wedge aimed at public workers unions in general. The nature of the caregivers’ work in private homes makes them particularly isolated, open to abuse by employers and difficult to organize into unions. These workers carry out demanding tasks: cooking, cleaning, administering medication, bathing patients and helping them in and out of bed. Together with nurses and workers in residential care centers, they have the highest rate of workplace injuries. Home health care workers, nearly 90 percent of whom are women, are disproportionately black, Latino and immigrant. While still among the lowest-paid workers in the public sector, home health care workers in Illinois saw their wages rise from less than $7 per hour to $13 after they joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Union membership not only benefits those workers but also, by providing more training and reducing staff turnover, benefits their patients.

To evade legal precedent protecting agency shops for public workers, the court ruled that while home health care workers are paid from public funds they are “not full-fledged public employees” because they may be hired and supervised by their clients. This fiction was concocted in order to ratify the plaintiffs’ bogus contention that their being forced to pay agency fees violated their First Amendment right, as individuals, to free speech. This red herring was dragged in to take aim squarely at the rights of labor. From the very existence of unions to the right to strike, labor rights were achieved through hard struggle against the capitalists and their state. At any rate, the only rights to which the bourgeoisie is unalterably committed are its own property rights.

While the backers of the Harris plaintiffs pushed the Supreme Court to also overturn the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld the agency shop for public-sector workers, the court stopped short, at least for the moment. However, Justice Samuel Alito devoted much of the majority opinion to criticizing Abood, effectively inviting a frontal challenge to agency shops. Indeed, such cases are already wending their way through the lower courts. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, ten teachers backed by the right-wing Center for Individual Rights (CIR) are challenging the agency shop on grounds similar to Harris v. Quinn. The CIR lawyers admitted that their claims were barred by the Abood precedent, conceding defeat at the District Court level so that their appeals could proceed up the chain to the Supreme Court.

Twenty-six states have laws providing for the agency shop for public-sector workers, while open shop “right to work” states ban this arrangement. Marxists defend the agency shop against the bosses’ attacks. But what we are for is the closed shop, where workers must be members of the union before being hired. The closed shop, facilitating union control of hiring, was outlawed by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which aimed at crippling labor by banning a range of militant strike tactics and opening up a red purge of the unions. While allowing union shops, where workers are required to join unions after being hired, the law also opened the door to the opt-out provisions of the agency shop.

What is needed are fighting unions that encompass all workers in a company or industry, uniting them in struggle against the bosses for improved pay, benefits and work conditions. It is precisely by playing workers off against one another that the capitalists divide and weaken the working class, often by exacerbating racial and ethnic divisions. Many “right to work” advocates hate unions not least because they are integrated. Strong unions, including the closed shop, were won through sharp class struggle involving often-illegal tactics like mass pickets, factory occupations and secondary boycotts.

For all their ritual denunciations of Taft-Hartley as a slave-labor act, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats have overwhelmingly bowed to its restrictions, helping grease the skids for the sharp decline of unions in the U.S. The more the union leaders limit workers’ struggles within the framework of what is permitted by bourgeois law, the more the capitalists further narrow proletarian rights by augmenting their arsenal of anti-union laws.

If the agency shop is eliminated for public-sector workers, it will be a serious blow for the working class as a whole. With the decline of unionized manufacturing jobs, public-sector workers make up a greater than ever proportion of organized labor, with the rate of unionization among public-sector workers more than five times that of private-sector workers. Unions like the SEIU and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have recruited large numbers of home health care workers. However, many of the same unions include cops and prison guards. These guard dogs of capitalist rule are used to smash workers’ picket lines and enforce a reign of terror against black people and other minorities. Cops and prison guards out of the unions!

Labor Tops’ Subservience to Democrats

Opposition to Harris v. Quinn among bourgeois liberals stems from the fact that the decision upsets a mechanism to help maintain labor peace in the public sector. In her dissent on the ruling, Justice Elena Kagan expressed relief that the court did not completely overturn the agency shop, which she characterized as a key tool for state and local governments “in the management of their employees and programs.” The “bad news,” she wrote, was that Illinois can no longer use this “tool” in regard to home health care workers.

For the labor tops, the agency shop means more money for union coffers without having to do anything in the way of actual struggle. This setup is an example of their reliance on the state institutions of the capitalist rulers, as are various other arrangements, such as the system of dues checkoff, which puts the collection of a union’s money in the bosses’ hands. Central to the class-collaborationist outlook of the union bureaucracy is the lie that the capitalist state can be pressured to act in the interests of workers, at least when run by Democrats.

In Illinois, the SEIU signed up 20,000 home health care workers after then-governor Rod Blagojevich (whom the union helped elect, pouring $1.8 million into his 2002 and 2006 campaigns) issued an executive order designating them state employees. It is this designation that has now been overturned by the Supreme Court, demonstrating how easily reforms that benefit the working class can be reversed in the absence of class struggle.

The Democrats themselves have been carrying out attacks on unions, particularly in the public sector. The Obama administration has long pushed anti-union charter schools and hailed the recent California court ruling against teacher tenure laws, a direct blow to union seniority rights. Democratic Illinois governor Pat Quinn, the defendant in Harris v. Quinn, has signed a law gutting the pensions of public workers, a measure several unions are challenging in the courts. In a stark example of the labor bureaucracy’s servility, the Illinois Education Association is both suing Governor Quinn over his attacks on their pensions and endorsing his re-election in November!

Condemning the Harris decision, leaders of several unions representing public-sector workers, including the SEIU, AFSCME, the Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of Teachers, mouthed platitudes about fighting back. What they really meant was laid out by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who told the London Financial Times (2 July), “We’re going to work real hard to get pro-worker candidates elected,” i.e., once again getting out the vote for the Democrats in this year’s mid-term elections. This is the same dead-end electoral strategy that in recent years led to defeats in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, where “right to work” measures gutted union rights. In Wisconsin in 2011, thousands of union members had repeatedly mobilized in protests in Madison, the state capital. But the bureaucrats nixed any chance to use the strike weapon, diverting workers’ anger into Democratic Party electioneering.

While the White House issued a statement criticizing the Harris ruling, when it comes to unions actually engaging in struggle, it’s another matter for U.S. capitalism’s chief executive. On June 14, over 400 train engineers and electricians in the Philadelphia area went out on strike against SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority). At the request of the Pennsylvania governor, President Obama immediately signed an executive order under the Railway Labor Act forcing the strikers back to work. And when it comes to basic democratic rights, the Obama administration has managed to come out to the right of the utterly reactionary Supreme Court, which recently ruled against the government by banning warrantless searches of cell phones.

For Class-Struggle Leadership!

Today under unrelenting ruling-class attack, the gains achieved by unionized public workers were wrested through often fierce battles against the government. The Abood decision itself came near the end of a wave of organizing drives among public-sector workers during the 1970s.

American society, which had been polarized by the struggle for black rights and the counterrevolutionary U.S. war against Vietnam, experienced a rise in union struggles, fueled by the rapid erosion of wages due to inflation caused by the war. As part of a dramatic rise in rank-and-file militancy, the New York City branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers walked out in March 1970. This action was not only in defiance of their national leadership but also the law, which banned postal workers, like all federal workers, from striking. President Richard Nixon declared a national emergency and ordered 23,000 troops to occupy the post offices in New York.

But the wildcat strike spread throughout the country, mostly against the will of the union leadership. With young and black militants taking the lead, over 210,000 postal workers defied back-to-work court injunctions in the largest strike ever against the U.S. government. The Post Office was forced to concede wage increases and collective bargaining rights, with no reprisals. The postal wildcat helped spur the rapid growth of public-sector unions. However, strikes by federal workers remain banned, and union officials increasingly hide behind federal and state anti-strike laws, often including the threat of big fines and jail time for union leaders, as an excuse for shelving the strike weapon.

The potential of the Harris case to destroy the agency shop was characterized by AFSCME’s general counsel, Bill Lurye, as “an attempted kill shot aimed at public-sector unions.” If anything like this comes to pass, it will be due in no small part to the class collaborationism of the union misleaders, which has undermined labor as a fighting force and, consequently, eroded elementary union consciousness. After collective bargaining was abolished for state workers in Indiana, union membership plummeted by 90 percent. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation caused AFSCME’s revenues to drop 60 percent. Smelling blood, anti-labor forces are determined to challenge the very existence of unions, including by cutting the flow of funds.

Over the years, efforts by workers to win even the modest right to organize collectively have been met with vicious retaliation, from firings and arrests to murderous violence. It will take determined struggle to beat back the capitalist rulers’ war against labor. For the unions to effectively fight in the interests of workers, they must be freed from the shackles binding them to the Democratic Party and the capitalist state. This requires forging a new labor leadership based on the understanding that the interests of the working class are counterposed to those of the capitalist exploiters. The working class needs its own party, independent from and opposed to the Democratic and Republican parties of capitalist rule. For a workers party to fight for a workers America!