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The fight for civil rights is also about economic opportunity

By Seema Nanda

Feb 7, 2018

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

We often compartmentalize the daunting challenges facing this country. One fight is about taxes. Another is about health care. A third is about the tension between corporations and workers. The truth is that all of these challenges are deeply intertwined. Providing health care to all is not only about keeping us well, but also about our economic well-being. Similarly, civil rights are not just about legal freedoms, but also removing obstacles that prevent people from climbing the ladder of economic opportunity, or even getting a foothold in the first place.

In a few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a landmark case that highlights the deep connections between workers’ rights and economic opportunity — and the grave threats posed by the all-out assault on working people by a handful of powerful interests. Janus v. AFSCME could upend long-settled constitutional questions, deepen existing economic inequality, and put a solid middle-class livelihood further out of reach for too many. For all of these reasons, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and more than 85 organizations committed to civil rights and economic opportunity, filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of the public sector workers and their unions who are under attack.

Almost 40 years ago in Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was constitutional for public sector unions to collect “fair share fees” — fees to cover collective bargaining costs — from the non-members who the union is legally obligated to represent through collective bargaining and in other ways.

In its decision, the Court reasoned that these fair share fees balance the rights and equities of everyone involved, allowing workers to exercise their right not to join a union but also ensuring that nobody free rides on the benefits negotiated by the union. Indeed, all members of a collective bargaining unit, regardless of union membership, receive the benefits of union negotiations, such as higher wages, representation in grievance processes, and, often, health care, fair scheduling, and other benefits.

This may all change with the Court’s decision. Abood brought labor peace, reaffirmed the right of states to manage their own labor relations, and, most importantly, empowered millions of workers to have a voice. Overruling this longstanding precedent would reverse 40 years of progress and radically reorder First Amendment jurisprudence.

Janus is the culmination of a decades-long effort to weaken employees’ rights at work, including a fevered state-by-state assault on workers’ rights that has swept the country since 2010. It also comes alongside recent Supreme Court cases that erode the rights of private sector workers, in particular by preserving mandatory arbitration practices that effectively override workers’ right to file a class action suit, even in cases of sexual harassment or discrimination based on race, age, or gender. As a result, many workers in America now have to choose between their civil rights and a job — more than 60 million workers must sign away their right to sue their employer simply as a condition of employment.

A Supreme Court ruling against unions in the Janus case would make it harder for millions of people to get ahead and stay ahead. Rather than undermining unions, we need to expand on decades of experience proving that collective bargaining and strong unions create and sustain economic opportunity. Our economic system needs repair, but breaking public sector unions is not the fix working people need.

To the contrary, we have seen the real-world results of empowering workers through public sector unions. Wages for women and people of color in unions are not only higher than their nonunion counterparts; they are also more equal. The gender wage gap for nonunion workers is typically 20 cents for full-time women, but only nine cents for women union members. African American workers in unions had median weekly earnings of $808, compared to nonunion African American workers’ weekly earnings of $646. According to the Department of Labor, almost a fifth of all working women in the United States work in the public sector. Public sector unions have been, and continue to be, a critical pathway to the middle class for women and people of color.

The public sector opened its door to workers as racist and sexist barriers shut them out of good jobs. Once through that open door, millions of women and people of color found that being part of a union not only gave them a voice, but provided a fairer workplace that offered a clear pathway to the middle class. Union workers do not endure unfair scheduling, civil rights violations, gender discrimination in pay, and today’s racial and gender barriers alone. They face — and overcome — these struggles together.

Public sector workers and their unions have also been allies in fights that have won important protections — on and off the job — for all workers. They were in the vanguard in the fight to pass the Affordable Care Act. Today, they are fighting for justice for the Dreamers and other immigrants. They are helping to lead the fight to guarantee a living wage and important benefits like paid leave for everyone. It is not a coincidence that the wealthy and powerful interests on the other side of all of these fights want to weaken the ability of workers to stand up and speak up together.

In the Janus case, and on so many other fronts, we are faced with a choice: a race to the bottom where the richest keep getting richer and the rest of us fall further behind, or a society that puts in place policies that work for all. It is clear which side public sector unions are on.

About the author:

Seema Nanda is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and served as Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez in the Obama Administration.