Striking a Blow for the Big Guys
There is no escaping it: The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. One-quarter of American workers make less than $10 per hour, a wage well below the current poverty level. The top 1 percent have an average net worth of $26.4 million, and on top of that, they take home $1.5 million annually. The wealthiest 1 percent own 40 percent of the income of our entire country, and that number is growing.
Most low-wage workers do not receive any benefits from their employers — no health insurance, no retirement plans, no guaranteed sick days, nothing to protect them from the unforeseen forces of fate, whether it be a bad fall or an unexpected death or illness in the family. Ignoring these facts, the Trump administration’s major legislative accomplishment has been a huge tax cut for the wealthy, widening the wage gap even further.
Now comes a court case that could increase our nation’s income inequality even more. On Monday the Supreme Court heard Janus vs. Afscme, a historic case that challenges a four-decade-old precedent that stipulates union members must pay the union in exchange for the union fulfilling its legal responsibility to represent every member, negotiate a contract and fight for pay increases for everyone.
The potential consequences of the court’s decision will be real and immediate. If the court rules against Afscme — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — then union members across the country could receive all the benefits of being in a union without having to pay for it.
This could be perceived as a win for union members, who would reap the assistance of a union without having to pay dues. But the impact of an anti-union decision would be financially disastrous for public-sector employees. It would give people an option that might seem appealing (getting something for nothing) but that would actually ensure that unions do not have the resources they need to negotiate good contracts, fight for higher wages, defend members and protect pensions.
The plaintiff in this case is Mark Janus, a child-support specialist for the state of Illinois. But the real perpetrators of the broader assault on workers are the billionaires and corporations who have spent fortunes over many years to defund unions and consequently make it harder for working people to receive fair wages. The lie at the heart of this effort is the idea of “right to work,” policies that allow workers to avoid paying fees to unions that bargain for them.
In the states that have adopted right-to-work laws, more people go uninsured. Workers also make on average $6,109 less a year and are 49 percent more likely to die on the job than those in states without such laws. Wisconsin, now a right-to-work state, has made it against the law for anyone to collectively bargain over anything other than base pay, resulting in the largest middle class decline of any state. Since the law passed in 2011, Wisconsin public employees have received only a 2 percent salary increase — and employees’ share of benefits contributions immediately reduced employees’ take-home pay by up to 12 percent.
My union, Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union, wants to raise awareness among the public about the specific, damaging consequences of these policies, including about who will lose most and who is destined to profit. Our local represents 96,000 employees of the state of California who contribute almost $6 billion to the state’s economy.
We are the people who run background checks and audits to ensure your children are safe when you hand them off to their day care provider. We are the regulators who ensure that utility companies are not creating dangerous conditions in your communities. We are the information technology workers and administrative professionals who ensure you receive the information you need to drive, run your business and keep your professional license up to date. We are the nurses who care for our veterans and the people who inspect our bridges and roads.
The Janus decision is critical to every community because every community is dependent upon the tireless good work of our educators, medical specialists and civil servants. Please do not be deceived if the Supreme Court, as seems likely, decides against unions. We ask the public to stand with us: to support working families, union members and public employees, and to fight for workers’ rights as we combat the epidemic of income inequality. Help us protect our ability to take care of our families and retire with dignity.