Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Public Employee Unions: Worker Safety Is At Risk

February 23rd, 2018 | Jordan Barab

One of the most significant cases for workers in recent history is coming before the Supreme Court next week. Janus vs. AFSCME will determine whether “workers who are not members of unions representing teachers, police, firefighters and certain other government employees must pay to help cover the costs of collective bargaining with state and local governments.”  Currently workers are able to refuse to pay that portion of dues that go to political activities.  If Janus wins, workers would not even have to pay that portion of dues that goes to bargaining expenses and defending workers rights. Non-members would still enjoy the benefits of union contracts and representation, however.

Janus and his supporters are hiding behind “freedom of speech” arguments, but their real agenda is weakening public sector unions by taking away their ability to collect dues.  Destroying the labor movement in this country has long been a goal of most Republicans and  the right wing  — mainly in order to weaken one of the Democrats’ most powerful backers.  The right-leaning court is expected to rule in favor of Janus. A similar case came before the court two years ago, but resulted in a 4-4 tie after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans’ refusal to allow Obama to appoint a new justice enabled Trump to appoint Neil Gorsuch and a probable majority against public employee unions –a decision that will weaken the entire labor movement.

A ruling against public unions is unlikely to have a direct impact on unionized employees of private businesses, because the First Amendment restricts government action and not private conduct. But unions now represent only 6.5 percent of private sector employees, down from the upper teens in the early 1980s, and most of the labor movement’s strength these days is in the public sector.

Public employees do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens.

Public employees — health care workers, teachers, wastewater treatment plant workers, highway workers, firefighters, police, etc — do the hard work that makes this country worth living in, but they’re treated as second class citizens. There is no national right to collective bargaining for public employees, so states decide whether government workers get to have a union or not. That right can be given, and, as we saw recently in Wisconsin, that right can be taken away.

Public employees were also not covered by OSHA. State plan states are required to cover public employees and other states can choose to establish a public employee OSHA program with half the funding coming from the feds, but only five states have chosen to do so. That leaves 23 states and 8 million public employees who have no right to a safe workplace in this country, even thought they do work that is as dangerous as private sector workers, and suffer injuries and illnesses at a higher rate.

An AFL-CIO report notes, for example, that

Workplace violence events disproportionately occur among public employees. The incidence rate of injuries caused by workplace violence was more than 675% higher for state government workers (31.2 per 10,000 workers) than the rate for private industry workers (4.0). The incidence rate of violence for local government workers (23.0 per 10,000 workers) was 475% higher than for private industry workers.

Lack of OSHA coverage makes union representation even more important for public employees, a feature noted in a New York Times article today that discussed the Janus case. Illinois AFSCME local union President Randy Clover, who voted for Trump, opposes Janus.

Mr. Clover said his union had done invaluable work, notably in ensuring workers’ safety. He gave an example from his workplace, a maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system.

“The only thing we have is our hands to protect ourselves,” he said, “and we have handcuffs we can put on an individual if they are so out of control you cannot control them without somebody facing injury.”

When the state tried to ban the use of handcuffs to transport patients, Mr. Clover said, “the union went to battle for us.” The handcuffs stayed.

But, the Times notes, Janus’s lawyers argue that even safety should be considered “lobbying on questions of public policy and that unwilling workers should not be made to subsidize it.”

But make no mistake. Behind the façade of freedom of speech is a raw power play to weaken the labor movement and workers’ rights in this country — including the right to come home alive and healthy at the end of the work day.

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and I spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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