This month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that threatens to severely weaken the collective bargaining power of America’s unions.
This is not a column about the merits and demerits of public-employee unions. Rather, I want to discuss something else: how essential unions are for American minorities, and how attacks on public-employee unions represent an extension of the numerous attacks upon minorities engulfing America.
Unions have consistently provided a pathway into the middle class for American minorities. Championing unions formed an integral part of the civil rights movement in 1960s.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders linked social justice to the strength of labor unions to provide minorities with employment opportunities and a livable wage. Public-sector jobs have historically provided employment opportunities for African Americans before the private sector did, and the employment opportunities created within them provided the black community with job opportunities that never existed before.
These unions also brought new protections to valued professionals within the black community, notably teachers. From Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond, teaching was especially important, given that white educators simply wouldn't teach black children in many parts of the country. Many of our best and brightest have flocked to this profession.
Today, jobs in the public sector unions that are threatened by Janus provide the single greatest employment opportunity for African Americans. Nearly 20 percent of African American adults work for the government in positions including teacher, child welfare services, mailman and everything in between. African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to have a public sector job.
Here's what Janus is about. The argument is as absurd as it is dangerous. Mark Janus, a white male, works for the Illinois state government and does not believe that he should be required to pay dues to AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31 that represents Illinois state workers. He’s arguing that paying dues represents a violation of his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment bans compelled speech, which includes being forced to make political contributions.
Janus is not a member of the union and opposes its political activities. But he still benefits from the collective bargaining agreements that AFSCME has made with the state of Illinois that impacts all public-sector employees. AFSCME collects fees from Janus and other non-union members to fund their collective bargaining efforts. In 1977 in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education SCOTUS decided to allow unions to collect dues from non-members so long as they do not have to pay for a part of the union’s political activities. As a non-member, Janus’ dues do not go towards political contributions, yet he contends that his non-political dues are nevertheless a constitutional violation.
If the Court decides in favor of Janus, overturning 40 years legal precedent and redefining the First Amendment, unions will lose a significant source of revenue, their collective bargaining powers will be greatly undermined, and they expect a significant loss in membership.
Conservative groups and proponents of right-to-work states support Janus, and now the racial undertones of this case become even more apparent. A cursory look at the origins of right-to-work laws make their racist intent abundantly clear.
Presently 24 states, including all 11 original Confederate states, have right-to-work laws. Today, most Americans attribute the right-to-work movement to President Reagan, but the movement actually started in the 1930s in Texas With Vance Muse and the Christian American Association. As industries grew in Texas, so did the growth of unions in the state, with African Americans using their collective power to demand better wages and working conditions. The strength of unions in Texas legitimately challenged Jim Crow in the state, and soon, rich Texas industrialists coined “right-to-work” laws to weaken unions. Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries and the father of Koch Brothers Charles and David was an early supporter of right-to-work.
To sell right-to-work laws in Texas and throughout the South, backers described unions as enabling “race-mixing” and Communism. Right-to-work literature proclaimed that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes…whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”
America’s hysteria over Communism and the South’s commitment to segregation and Jim Crow made this an easy pitch, and right-to-work spread across the South.
Today America remains consumed with the racial battles of the 1960s, Jim Crow, and even the Civil War, and American conservatives remain committed to attaching seemingly innocuous titles to obviously racist policies. These policies hurt all American workers, but disproportionately minorities.
That's why African Americans and other minorities see the attack on unions as being of a piece with the threat of voter ID laws, gerrymandering, “school choice” policies, felon disenfranchisement, and a Justice Department more concerned with prosecuting marijuana than spearheading criminal justice reform.
The roots of Florida’s felon disenfranchisement laws are grounded in a commitment to disenfranchise emancipated African Americans during Reconstruction. The term “school choice” or “freedom of choice” educational laws were coined in Alabama to oppose Brown v. Board of Education. Gerrymandering may have been created by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812, but the South has been expertly using it to disenfranchise African Americans since we could vote. The emergence of voter ID laws after SCOTUS struck down preclearance in the Voting Rights act of 1965 should not be a surprise.
America appears more committed to re-litigating the past in order to create a more unequal and racially divided society. And we’re doing it by selling Americans racist policies masked as beacons of individual liberty and pillars of democratic freedom. Janus v. AFSCME is based on an alleged violation of Janus’ individual First Amendment rights and demonstrates no understanding or concern for how his actions will disproportionately harm American minorities.
Who can say if Janus or his supporters have racist intent in his suit, or if the supporters of voter ID laws, Republican gerrymandering, school choice, felon disenfranchisement, and Trump voters in general have racist views. But they combine to pose a significant threat to the rights and economic security of black people, and to the legitimacy of our democracy. We overlook this unpleasant reality at our own peril.