Public sector employees of color could be adversely impacted by the Janus v. AFSCME case.
The Supreme Court case involves Mark Janus, a state employee who says Illinois law violates his free speech rights by requiring him to pay fees to subsidize AFSCME, which represents tens of thousands of Illinois workers.
Janus is seeking to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. It said public workers who refuse to join a union can still be required to pay for bargaining costs, as long as the fees don’t go toward political purposes. The arrangement was supposed to prevent non-members from “free riding,” since the union has a legal duty to represent all workers.
Janus contends that collective bargaining is political activity, thus, forcing public sector employees to support an organization and its political activities violates their First Amendment rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech.
As a longtime bus driver with the School District of Philadelphia, Charnel Brownlee is concerned about the impact the Supreme Court decision could have on working families. The case threatens the right of workers to bargain with their public employer through their union.
“Collective bargaining allows us to earn a decent living wage,” said Brownlee, who is a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ. “It allows us benefits. It allows us to provide for our families, the upkeep of our homes to keep our communities nice and to support the businesses in our community.
“Without collective bargaining, a lot of the things that we could afford, we won’t be able to afford anymore,” continued Brownlee, the mother of two sons.
“It’s just going to hurt working families, period.”
On Feb. 26, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments in the case. The court is expected to make its decision in June.
A brief issued by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that Black women could be especially hurt by the case due to their high participation in public sector union jobs.
They make up 17.7 percent of public-sector workers, or about 1.5 million workers. According to the institute, Black women are paid only 65 cents of the dollar that their white male counterparts are paid, but unions help to reduce the pay gap. Working Black women in unions are paid 94.9 percent of what their Black male counterparts make, while non-union Black women are paid just 91 percent of their counterparts.
Unions have been a pathway to the middle class for many African Americans.
Sandra Dowling, a school district custodian and member of SEIU, is concerned about how the court’s ruling could impact her daughters, grandchildren and younger workers. She wants her union to remain viable for the next generation.
Throughout the years, Dowling has reaped the benefits of union membership, which as workplace situations where she turned to the union for legal assistance.
She has been educating her younger colleagues about their rights and the educational benefits available through the union.
“My major concern is for young people coming behind me right now on my job,” said Dowling, who is retiring in 2019 after 24 years of working as a cleaner.
“I have been talking to them about it and helping them to understand that they need to stand up for their rights or they won’t have any on their job, because a lot of them don’t understand.”