By Dave McKee


At the end of June, the US Supreme Court issued its long awaited ruling in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, in which Mark Janus challenged the constitutionality of public sector workers having to “fair share fees” (or “agency fees”) to the union representing him. These fees are specifically for workers who choose to not join the union, and therefore do not pay dues, but who are still covered by the contract and defended by the union. They exist in the 22 US states that do not have open shop “Right to Work” legislation.


Janus’ case was based on the argument that his opposition to the union’s political positions meant that mandatory fees violated his constitutional right to free speech. In reality, the fees are used to cover the costs of the union’s legal obligation to represent and defend all workers in its bargaining unit, including those who opt to not pay dues.

The Janus ruling is a major attack on labour rights and the trade union movement – it makes the public sector across the entire United States an “open shop” and directly diminishes union membership and resources. It is expected that public sector unions will lose between 10-30% of their membership – between 500,000 and 1.5 million unionized workers.


Wages, benefits and working conditions will also be negatively affected. The Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimates that this decision could lower public sector wages by an average of 4%, an overall loss of up to $33.4 billion. The overwhelming bulk of these lost wages are likely to end up in the coffers of corporations and the very rich, through reductions in state taxes.


Workers from oppressed groups will feel the brunt of these losses. Women comprise about 55% of the public sector workforce but are paid an average of 10% less than men in that sector. Studies of the fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown show that Black workers, who account for about 20% of public sector workers in the US, faced job losses in that sector at a far steeper rate than other demographic groups.


As unions in the US brace for this onslaught, the labour movement in Canada is considering the challenges Janus presents to workers here. CUPE, NUPGE, PSAC, and CBTU-Canada all released statements of solidarity with US workers and warned that they expect to face similar struggles.


In the first place, the decision puts wind into the sails of those who promote Right to Work (RtW) legislation in Canada. Many of the same huge corporations that have pushed anti-union legislation in the US are agitating for the same here. This is particularly acute in Ontario, which stands with Ohio as the only two non-RtW jurisdictions in the heavy manufacturing region known as the “I-75 corridor.” Ohio is expected to vote on this issue in two years, and Doug Ford’s Conservative government is just waiting for the chance to enthusiastically swing this axe at Ontario’s working class.


The expected wage losses in the US will also affect public sector workers in Canada. Even though there is generally not direct competition between jurisdictions in this sector, lower wages in US states will translate into downward pressure on wages generally. Anyone familiar with collective bargaining knows that the bosses’ unwillingness to pay another workplace’s higher wages is only equaled by their insistence upon matching lower ones.


As US public sector unions are weakened, their workplaces will be more susceptible to privatization. This will, undoubtedly, lead to rapidly

 increased accumulation and concentration among the private corporations who take over these assets and institutions. And their greed will definitely spill across the border, where Justin Trudeau has already greased the rails of privatization with his multi-billion dollar Canada Infrastructure Bank.


It’s a very serious challenge and it all sounds very bleak, but the good news is that some in the labour movement are already in motion to fight back.


Prior to the Janus decision, in West Virginia – already a RtW state – education workers defied restrictions on their rights and held an illegal strike. They won pay increases and their struggle inspired similar strikes (many of them similarly illegal) in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Oklahoma. The unions involved have reported increases in membership in response to the walkouts, including a 13% jump in Oklahoma.


The fight by the teachers and education workers really does show the way forward. But to be sustainable over the long term, in the face of powerful foes, unions will need to be engaging and responsive for their membership. The United Electrical Workers (UE) in Indiana and Wisconsin successfully united and mobilized and united their members in these RtW states and were able to maintain high membership levels. As the union notes, “The key is UE’s brand of rank-and-file, member-driven, democratic unionism.”


This formula is equally necessary in Canada. If the CLC and its affiliates are to successfully meet the threat that Janus poses, they need to be pushed away from business unionism and forced to pursue a determined policy of building unity, democracy, militancy, and independence.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Canada Chapter put it best:


“The CBTU Canada Chapter views this legislation as a call to action throughout the Canadian labour movement. Gone are the days when Labour can continue being divided as similar right-wing legislation remains hidden in the corridors of our Federal and Provincial Parliaments waiting to be unleashed.


“CBTU-Canada calls on ALL of Canada’s Unions, both the affiliated and non-affiliated, to form a united front against Right to Work legislation as we stand on the side of working families, ensuring that no worker, Unionized or non-unionized, is left behind through our collective response."


(The above article is from the August 1-31, 2018, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)