Review: ‘Labor Notes’ on fighting ‘open shops’

From the September-October 2018 issue of News & Letters

Detroit—In response to the June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME District 31, the journal Labor Notes published a special issue, “Re-Building Power in Open-Shop America: A Labor Notes Guide” (labornotes.org/openshop, July 2018). The pamphlet consists of organizing strategies (“Our Prescription,” p. 3) which aims to guide members of public sector unions to a concept of an inclusive, participatory union: “it becomes their organization when ‘the union’ doesn’t mean ‘those people down at the hall,’ but ‘you and me acting together every day on the job to defend our rights.’”

Photo: Labor Notes.

The Janus decision invalidated the union security clause for all public sector contracts nationwide. Hitherto, public employee unions in some states were “agency shops” in which every member of the bargaining unit had to be a union member or pay a fair-share fee (agency fee). In return, the union had to represent those non-members in both bargaining and the grievance process. The Janus decision effectively made all public sector unions “open shops,” since non-members, effective immediately, no longer have to pay the agency fee.

Anti-union “right-to-work” campaigns, to make union membership voluntary, are expected to gain a new lease on life. This despite the proof, immediately after the Janus decision, of how deeply unpopular right-to-work laws are: Missouri voters by more than two to one vetoed at the polls a right-to-work bill signed by discredited now ex-Governor Greitens before it could become effective. Despite that overwhelming rejection, some legislators want to re-introduce a right-to-work bill.

The first right-to-work laws were enacted in the South in 1944, even before the Taft-Hartley Law permitted states to do so. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1964, “ …we must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as ‘right to work’…The purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”

The pamphlet presents stories of successful social justice union organizing, notably the Chicago teachers who, in 2012, won unprecedented gains by rooting their cause in the communities they served. Despite the huge obstacles to this organizing model, the pamphlet makes a strong argument that “the best defense is a good offense.”

—Susan Van Gelder

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