The campaign to stifle the power of working-class Americans got turbocharged in late June when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA). Friedrichs focuses on the issue of whether the US Constitution allows states to require that public workers who benefit from unions' activity on their behalf pay a "fair-share" for that service. And a decision against the CTA would represent a massive financial hit to public sector unions, because they will be forced to expend money and time on collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievances for workers who can decide not to pay for those services.
Today, under a legal compromise from a unanimous Supreme Court in 1977, public workers who collectively choose to be represented by a union can't be forced to join the union or contribute to its political activity, but they do have to pay for the economic services they receive from the union. Friedrichs could overturn this compromise, leaving unions with little money to fulfill their responsibilities to workers or to speak out on public issues.
From a legal perspective, the arguments against the current law are laughable. A reading of the briefs reveals that the case is not about Constitutional rights for public workers but whether they can join together at all. For example, the brief from the State of Michigan claims that the mere existence of collective bargaining is responsible for numerous problems in that state, ranging from environmental degradation to Detroit's woes. But, in this case, the legal arguments really don't matter much, because anti-union justice Samuel Alioto "invited" the case to come before the court. Friedrichs is part of a worldwide campaign against the idea of collective worker power. Last month, the UK government announced a series of attacks on unions not been seen in that country since the days of Margaret Thatcher. And the draconian conditions that the European Union and the financiers placed on Greece earlier this month included a requirement that the struggling country change its laws to weaken collective bargaining.
There are many questions about unions today, including their place in the "sharing" economy and the vitality of labor strikes. Some union leaders are problematic and undemocratic. But one basic idea of unionism cannot be disputed — workers only have real power when they join together. The phrases "in unity there is strength" and "an injury to one is an injury to all" have been true for the non-rich since Spartacus led the slave revolt against Rome. In fact, for all the romantic visions of the role of social media, unity is the only real weapon ordinary people have, especially in today's new Gilded Age. Trusting "karma" and "the system," as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently suggested to aggrieved female employees, is no more than a cruel joke.
For the majority of us who are not union members, but who believe that a free society can only prosper when working people have a voice, the most worrisome aspect of Friedrichs is what financially strapped unions will be forced to do survive afterward. A big financial hit to the healthy union treasuries that remain will hamper the ability of unions to speak for their members — and for all workers — on issues large and small.
Already, union financial woes have taken a toll. The union financing of OUR Walmart campaign, a herculean effort to try to empower Walmart workers and raise workers' standards throughout the economy, appears to be coming to an end, according to recent emails from that group. And there are rumblings of discontent within the Service Employees International Union over the amount of financing it's providing to the excellent Fight for Fifteen campaign for a higher minimum wage. There is only so much that unions can do when their treasuries are depleted. A union, like any other organization, needs money to run and to pay staff wages and benefits necessary to live a decent life.
One of the strengths of unions always has been that they are financed by members' dues. The workers, in other words, pay the freight. Unions, as a result, don't have to rely on government contracts like weapons companies do or on government subsidies like solar companies and electric carmakers (like Tesla) do or on handouts from rich people and foundations. But if unions can no longer finance themselves with the dues of those who they directly benefit, they'll be forced to raise money like any other nonprofit. And the need to please the donor class in order to obtain funding likely will result in a silencing of working-class voices.
Already, well-meaning progressive academic and religious leaders are muzzling voices in order to assuage funders. This worrisome trend was noted in a recent blogpost by UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich. In April, Reich reported about pushbacks he had received from progressive institutions when he talked about rising inequality in the United States. He told of being asked to speak to a religious congregation about the topic, while being cautioned not to suggest raising taxes on the wealthy, because he shouldn't "antagonize certain wealthy congregants on whose generosity the congregation depended." He also told of being asked to speak to the governing body of a small college but with the caveat that he not criticize Wall Street because several of the trustees were investment bankers. On his blog, Reich observed that "[i]t's bad enough big money is buying off politicians. It's also buying off nonprofits that used to be sources of investigation, information, and social change, from criticizing big money."
Reich is right.
The left decries right-wing influence like that of the Koch brothers' in academia and public broadcasting. But, as Reich noted, the issue is not one of ideology: "Wealthy progressives can exert as much quiet influence over the agendas of nonprofits as wealthy conservatives." The issue is "big money influencing what should and should not be investigated, revealed, and discussed — especially when it comes to the tightening nexus between concentrated wealth and political power, and how that power further enhances great wealth... .
"Our democracy," he continued, "is directly threatened when the rich buy off politicians. But no less dangerous is the quieter and more insidious buy-off of institutions democracy depends on to research, investigate, expose, and mobilize action against what is occurring."
Due to the weakened condition of unions, this reliance on the rich has already begun to infect the labor movement. A recent Politico expose based on leaked donor briefing papers recounted the efforts of the group Working America at a Democracy Alliance meeting. Working America is an "alt-labor" group that seeks to rally nonunionized employees and has been held up as the future of worker organization. The Democracy Alliance is a group of progressive wealthy individuals who must agree to give $200,000–$1,000,000 to "endorsed groups." The leaked papers showed that labor advocates were forced to work on strategies to convince the wealthy of the benefits of unionism.
The problem in taking money from someone is that you have to give something back. It is worrisome to consider what progressive rich people will want back if they are financing worker organizations — maybe requests not to organize workers at their enterprises, or to run interference if any of their practices receive public scrutiny, or maybe a demand not to criticize or write about their wealthy friends when they do things that should be exposed? Already, there are some in labor who cut quid-pro-quo deals with the financial elite or who attempt to silence progressive voices, like Reich's, when they do not follow a prescribed script. Nearly always, these actions are done with good motives, but this kind of unseemly censorship comes with the territory when you have to rely on the rich, progressive or not.
Recently, at the PEN World Voices festival in New York, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke powerfully about the "codes of silence" that she sees in American life. "There is a general tendency in the United States to define problems of censorship as essentially foreign problems," Adichie said. But an American desire to be "comfortable" has engendered a "dangerous silencing. ... The fear of causing offense, the fear of ruffling the careful layers of comfort, becomes a fetish." A desire for comfort overcomes the goal of "truth."
If the coming decision in Friedrichs saps the ability of unions to be funded by their members, they are sure to decline in importance. With this weakening, and the concomitant requirement to fund themselves from the rich, our greatest voice against austerity will undoubtedly fall prey to Adichie's "dangerous silencing." With this, unions will likely make an irretrievable break with the spirit of the labor organizer Mother Jones, whose life force animated the best of collective action in the last century. As she said, "The first thing to do when you're faced with an injustice and you feel powerless" is to "raise hell."
But, if unions can only finance themselves with money from the comfortable rich, there won't be much hell-raising going on.