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Posts Tagged ‘court cases’

Friedrichs Is Dead; Labor’s Crisis Is Not. The ‘Scalia Dividend’ Is a Rare Opportunity for Unions.

Friday, February 19th, 2016

The Friedrichs vs. CTA Supreme Court case, a nakedly partisan assassination attempt on the labor movement, has died with Justice Antonin Scalia. What cannot die with it is the sense of existential crisis within the labor movement. We need a far-reaching conversation about the pathway back to increased activism, membership and power.

Like few moments before it, the Friedrichs case sparked a broad consensus within labor that our movement faced an existential crisis and that business as usual was a prescription for assisted suicide. Unfortunately, too many union leaders and staff based out of Washington, D.C. are now at risk of being dismissed as a bunch of Chicken Littles who overhyped a sky that never fell by the people who have the greatest ability to determine labor’s future: the local leaders and disengaged members.

It was a mistake to use the Friedrichs case to forge this somewhat rare agreement that labor faces an acute crisis. It seemed like a long shot that the Supremes would even take up the case just a few months after rejecting Justice Alito’s wet dream of a public sector “Right to Work” standard by a 5-4 margin in last session’s Harris vs. Quinn case (I lost a lot of bar bets when they did). Even with the case proceeding to oral arguments, there was always the possibility that the Court would punt on the issue or even rule in favor of the unions for political reasons or that one of these old farts would die and the case would deadlock.

But labor’s crisis predated Friedrichs and will live on after it. The “Right to Work” agenda, and the gutting of public sector collective bargaining laws, will continue to be pressed at the state level. And if the general financial commitment and philosophical approach to new union organizing remains the same, union density will surely continue to decline.

Fortunately, until the Friedrichs case gets re-argued or stalemates in a 4-4 decision, labor remains a bit like Schrödinger’s cat: simultaneously getting murdered by the judiciary and in the midst of a possible resurrection. So there’s still time to harness the sense of crisis into a renewed commitment to radical workplace democracy and activism. And the “rainy day” savings that many unions made in anticipation of an adverse decision can now be used as a “Scalia Dividend” to be invested in new campaigns.

A pragmatic approach to Armageddon

Faced with a potential revenue loss of millions of dollars, international unions focused pragmatically (and conservatively) on cajoling their locals to sign up agency fee payers to full union membership. But that was merely a matter of mechanics—a pragmatic approach to the coming Armageddon. Where workers are exclusively represented by a union and already compelled to pay fees for the benefit of that representation, those that haven’t joined typically haven’t been asked. It is a problem that too many unions don’t make a face-to-face contact to new employees and ask them to join, but it’s hardly labor’s biggest one.

The actual crisis in labor is rooted in a framework that has turned unions into agencies for workers, instead of organizations ofworkers.

The legal obligation of the duty of fair representation forces unions to focus on grievances and contract bargaining while the Taft-Hartley law and contractual no-strike agreements strongly discourage rank-and-file worker protest. Too many members then develop a “what have you done for me lately?” relationship with their union that is vulnerable to a “give yourself a raise” campaign that deep-pocketed right-wing outfits can launch following the loss of agency fee, encouraging union members to stop paying dues or agency fees and gain a bump in their paycheck.

That is the crisis that has been largely unaddressed, or at least unsolved, even while unions have spent two decades genuinely trying to meet the charge from the AFL-CIO to “organize at an unprecedented pace and scale.”

Not to mention, while union supporters were dancing on Justice Scalia’s grave, the West Virginia legislature just voted to become the 26th so-called “Right-to-Work” state. How long can agency fee survive in the other half of the states?

So the crisis still exists in that declining union density leads to declining union power. The billionaire class still wants to kill us, and we don’t make a compelling case about why workers should risk their jobs and relationships to fight with unions that look like ineffective special interests.

One of the under-told stories of the last two decades is how badly, and often how subtly, the organizing model conflicts with unions’ business as usual. In order to win, organizers introduce a radical and inclusive democracy into workplaces. We recruit often large and unwieldy organizing committees of workplace leaders through whom all major decisions about tactics, timing and demands must go for deliberation and approval.

And then we throw these newly radicalized workers into local unions where leadership all too often feel a political need to control bargaining and messaging themselves, going off into backrooms to meet with management and come back with a “win.” This is an unspoken conflict between international unions—who feel the need to “organize or die” more acutely—and locals who too often receive new bargaining units as an unwelcome disruption.

Many organizers wanted to use Friedrichs as an opportunity to work through this conflict. Instead, panicked about potential revenue loss, the leadership of the international unions talked too much about “agency fee conversion” (shop talk for convincing union-represented non-members to join and pay full dues) and a single Court case that is now moot. The organizers caught in the middle could find themselves locked out of further conversations about labor renewal and change with locals that now feel the crisis has passed. They need to broaden the sense of crisis and bring newfound resources to the table.

The “Scalia Dividend”: Labor’s second chance to get it right

Many unions that had Friedrichs’ sword of Damocles over their heads have quietly been squirreling money away, by under-funding or delaying funding new campaigns and not filling vacant staffing positions. Which means those unions now wake up to a “Scalia Dividend”—an unexpected windfall of newly available financial resources for new campaigns and initiatives.

Unions can and should commit resources to comprehensive campaigns for new bargaining units—the kind of campaigns that have quietly ceased in recent years. These organizing campaigns should have an eye towards enhancing density in union strongholds like auto manufacturing, education and retail, but also for big public campaigns that could potentially inspire more non-union workers to take action.

What could go further in inspiring non-union workers to contemplate their power is to build on the internal organizing that’s been going on in anticipation of Friedrichs with contract campaigns. Meaningful member engagement—the kind that can withstand the loss of agency fee—comes from stoking workers’ desires for better pay and working conditions (even their less “reasonable” demands) and extracting sweat equity from them in the form of escalating actions. These campaigns should culminate in a plan to demonstrate, as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has said that, “Our ability to withhold our labor is our power.”

We also need a new attempt at labor law reform. The fact that a workers rights bill has less of a chance passing Congress than Obama’s Supreme Court nominee shouldn’t make us say “Why bother?” Instead, it should inspire us to propose big, bold and meaningful reforms. Restoring solidarity rights, rooting unions’ collective actions in the First Amendment, outlawing “Right to Work,” banning permanent replacement of strikers—put it all on the table.

God forbid we do manage to spark the kind of mass strike wave that panics the billionaire class into throwing workers a few bones. What would we win for our effort? Card check? The AFL-CIO should convene an open call for legal reform proposals and put a new “Right To Your Job” bill on the record and on the lips of our members and allies.

The erstwhile House of Labor should also convene a wide-ranging strategic retreat for local leaders, rank-and-filers, staff, academics and activists that treats no idea as unwelcome or unthinkable. The recent petition filed by 106 leading labor scholarsin response to a question on union access to mandatory captive audience meetings left open by the NLRB (and promptly forgotten by union organizers) for 50 years highlights how badly labor needs more and different perspectives brought into the conversation. The poor souls who have spent the last few months poring over organizing databases, wall charts and lit pieces in anticipation of the Friedrichs decision need some fresh air and some new people to talk to.

Unions are no longer facing a multi-million dollar hit in June. We can give the bunker mentality a break, but we can’t pretend that we’re in the clear. There aren’t a lot of second chances in life. Labor must not squander this one.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on February 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

The Right To Birth Control Just Won Its Most Significant Victory To Date In A Post-Hobby Lobby Case

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Ian Millhiser Judge Jerry Smith is a deeply conservative judge. He once voted to allow a man to be executed despite the fact that the man’s lawyer slept through much of his trial. He’s a reliable vote against abortion rights. And he once described feminists as a “gaggle of outcasts, misfits and rejects.”

So when Judge Smith writes an opinion protecting women’s access to birth control, even when their employer objects to contraception on religious grounds, that’s a very big deal.

East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell is a consolidated batch of cases, handed down on Monday, involving religious employers who object to some or all forms of birth control. These employers are entitled to an accommodation exempting them from federal rules requiring them to offer birth control coverage to their employees. Most of them may invoke this accommodation simply by filling out a form or otherwise informing the federal government of their objection and naming the company that administers their employer health plan. At this point, the government works separately with that company to ensure that the religious employer’s workers receive contraception coverage through a separate health plan.

Several lawsuits are working their way through the federal courts which raise the same legal argument at issue here. In essence, the employers claim that filling out the form that exempts them from having to provide birth control makes them complicit in their employee’s eventual decision to use contraception, and so the government cannot require them to fill out this form. So far, every single federal appeals court to consider this question has sided with the Obama administration and against religious employers who object to this accommodation.

Few judges on any court, however, are as conservative as Judge Jerry Smith, a Reagan appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit whose law clerks frequently go on to clerk for the most conservative members of the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Smith makes short work of the claim that the fill-out-a-form accommodation burdens religious liberty.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides that the federal government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” except in limited circumstances. Applying this language, Smith writes in a unanimous opinion for a three-judge panel that “[t]he plaintiffs must show that the challenged regulations substantially burden their religious exercise, but they have not done so.”

The crux of Smith’s analysis is that the plaintiffs in these cases object to birth control, but nothing in the law requires these plaintiffs to do anything whatsoever involving birth control. Rather, their only obligation, if they do not wish to cover birth control, is to fill out a form or send a brief letter to the federal government — and neither of those things are contraception.

“Although the plaintiffs have identified several acts that offend their religious beliefs, the acts they are required to perform do not include providing or facilitating access to contraceptives,” Smith explains. “Instead, the acts that violate their faith are those of third parties.” Specifically, the plaintiffs object to the federal government working with an insurance administrator to provide contraception to certain workers. But the law does not “entitle them to block third parties from engaging in conduct with which they disagree.”

Indeed, Smith writes, if the plaintiffs in these cases were to prevail, it could lead to absurd challenges to basic government functions. “Perhaps an applicant for Social Security disability benefits disapproves of working on Sundays and is unwilling to assist others in doing so,” Smith explains. “He could challenge a requirement that he use a form to apply because the Social Security Administration might process it on a Sunday. Or maybe a pacifist refuses to complete a form to indicate his beliefs because that information would enable the Selective Service to locate eligible draftees more quickly. The possibilities are endless, but we doubt Congress, in enacting RFRA, intended for them to be.”

Smith’s opinion, in other words, should offer a fair amount of comfort to women whose employers seek to cut off their access to birth control coverage. Though there are signs that at least some of the justices would like for the plaintiffs in cases like East Texas Baptist to prevail, the fact that a judge as conservative as Jerry Smith rejected their legal arguments suggests that a majority of the Supreme Court will not embrace these lawsuits.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 22, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Ian Millhiser. Ian Millhiser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal. Ian’s first book is Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

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