The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on a decision this spring that could have far reaching implications for the future of politics in New York state.
The case Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is threatening to weaken public labor unions across the country.
“This is not just about Mr. Janus. This is about a right wing conservative ideological attack on working men and women of the middle class and organized labor in the public sector in particular,” said Mario Cilento, president of New York State Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Mark Janus is a public service worker in Illinois who is not part of a union. However, because of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — a 1977 U.S. Court case — Janus, a social worker, and other non-union members are required to pay fees to a union. The “fair-share” fees are for a union’s collective bargaining on the individual’s behalf.
There are currently 22 states including New York that require public employees to pay fees regardless of if they are union members or not. Janus argues that those fees violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and association. He believes that by paying a fee, he is then associated with the union’s political activity.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the future of public unions has been threatened. The case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association also sought to overrule Abood v. Detroit Board of Education but the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 left eight members to decide a ruling. The decision was a 4-4 split.
Since then, the seat has been filled by President Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch.
Unions across New York are arguing that the case is an attack on working people by those with power and money. Representatives from New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) held an event in the state Capitol in February to talk about the role of unions in New York.
Cilento said that strong unions increase the quality of living for all. Regardless of the outcome, he vows that the union will continue to be a voice for all working people — union members or not. AFL-CIO will continue to educate its members on the importance of unions.
Similarly, Andrew Pallotta, president of NYSUT, said the union will continue to be a voice for working people against money elitists. He boasted the growing number of members and mentioned that a charter school had recently become a member. Pallotta said that the only reason the school is willing to pay union fees is because unions provide benefits and a voice.
“If the entire country was full of strong union members, it would be an even better country,” Pallotta said.
Executive Vice President of CSEA, Mary Sullivan, compared Janus’ lawyers and those against unions to Rockefeller and Carnegies of the past.
“Brothers and sisters, the robber barons are back and their names are Koch and Trump, and individuals who want to put more money in their pockets and take it out of the pockets of working people,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan highlighted that unions have helped people rise, especially women. Individuals have the right to a union and to be free to join and bargain as part as one, she said.
“It’s not the time for anyone to be out there divided in this country and that’s what’s happening,” Sullivan said.
United University Professions (UUP) President Frederick Kowal said that the “corporate elites behind the suit” fear the power of workers who stand united. Kowal notes that unions have historically helped women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants and other workers without a strong voice be heard.
“Together, speaking in one loud, unified voice, labor will survive and thrive,” Kowal said. “UUP is prepared to fight to preserve the rights of our members to join together to bargain collectively, and to stand up for our members—and all working families.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his State of the State that he stands behind public labor unions and will continue to support them.
“They are going to try to take us out but they’re not going to succeed,” Sullivan said.
A decision is expected to come in May or June, when the court typically releases its opinions on cases.