Trump’s Supreme Court will crush public sector unions unless we mobilize now to fight and win big in the next contract.
In February 2016, Antonin Scalia’s death ended his 30 year tenure on the Supreme Court just as a ruling was expected on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The plaintiffs in the case had argued that “agency shop” laws, which require public sector employees to pay dues as a condition of employment rather than on a voluntary basis, were unconstitutional. Had Scalia lived, the court would have decided in favor of Friedrichs, and “right-to-work” — the prohibition of agency shops — would have become the law of the land. But with Scalia gone, the court split 4-4 and denied a petition for rehearing. His passing was heralded as an intercession from above by folks in labor movement. While we all cheered the near-miss and vowed to prepare for the next round, some remarked somberly that unions had done precious little to prepare for a ruling that seemed like a sure thing until Scalia’s unexpected demise. Pinning the survival of labor unions on the timely death of their opponents is not a great long term strategy.
After a brief flurry of perhaps misplaced glee, labor resumed its dormancy. The expectation was that Scalia would be replaced by a moderate picked by Obama or his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, and the court would lean liberal for the next few decades. But these idle dreams came crashing down when Trump ascended to the presidency having campaigned on a promise to tap a justice “in the mold” of Scalia. We can now expect that another lawsuit seeking to destroy agency shops — Friedrichs 2.0 — is waiting in the wings, and that the new Supreme Court will likely enshrine a version of right-to-work within 18 months of the inauguration. [Updated: this is exactly what is happening.] Rather than passively bracing for the inevitability of right-to-work, as the PSC and most other unions did during the deliberation of the Friedrichs case, we need to get organizing. It is now or never for public sector unions.
The next PSC contract is do or die for the union
The upcoming contract will determine whether the PSC survives in a right-to-work world. If the PSC cannot secure sizable gains for its members, and especially for its most precarious members, adjuncts and disillusioned full-timers will desert the union in droves. PSC leadership has its head in the sand if it doesn’t realize that many of its members are completely cynical and believe they could get the same gains (i.e. none whatsoever) by free riding. This is not a threat. In fact, CUNY Struggle encourages all adjuncts to sign a card and take the fight for equity to the PSC, while organizing outside of it. Rather, it is a statement of fact: few adjuncts can be expected to voluntarily contribute dues from their poverty-wage paychecks to a union that does nothing to advance their interests. Without the agency fee revenue, we can expect the current PSC leadership to double down on its strategy of catering to its ever-shrinking base of full-time faculty while the administration turns the few remaining tenure lines into adjunct positions. And by the time full-timers finally realize the two-tier system was not protecting them, it will be too late for job security across the board.
Thus, what needs to happen if the PSC is to survive the coming onslaught should be clear: create a union that represents the rank-and-file and will fight for a “fair contract” for all. What is less clear is how this can be accomplished. The PSC leadership will likely tell its members that they need to lobby Albany or rally outside CUNY Central to demand that the powers that be increase the size of the pie. They will probably show up to these field trips with a few dozen New Caucus faithfuls, flanked by bright eyed students recruited to the CUNY Rising Alliance, but these efforts will bear no fruit if not paired with a direct action strategy capable of applying real pressure beyond moral entreaties that “speak truth to power”. The PSC cannot continue to dabble in symbolism and ignore the rank-and-file.
How to change the tide of public sector unionism: militant organizing
It is incumbent upon the PSC to build up its base: sign up members, especially adjuncts, only 50% of whom are card-carrying members, and mobilize them by putting forward a plan for pay parity and job security that has legitimacy among adjuncts. We must also think creatively about how to put university governance back in the hands of faculty and students. A militant strategy is paramount, both in order to recruit members and to secure the gains we need. Last year, we saw that members were willing to strike for a fair contract, and the PSC leadership’s capitulation to a subpar contract was a betrayal of this militancy. We must put a strike back on the table.
We can achieve this kind of militancy in a number of ways. At the campus-level, members can signal their dissatisfaction with New Caucus business-as-usual by organizing opposition slates in the spring chapter elections. Adjuncts can run as independents delegates. Breaking the iron-fisted rule of the New Caucus over the delegate assembly would foreclose the ratification of a shoddy contract next fall. Members should also push for radical democratization of the union, eg. the imposition of term limits on officers, more time for rank-and-file interventions during the DA, an executive committee and bargaining team that proportionally represent the composition of the PSC.
The hegemony of the New Caucus can and must be challenged. Members should not fear Barbara Bowen, for we have strength in numbers. We ought to come together and call out the stagnant and feeble New Caucus strategy, push for democratic reform of the union, and mobilize to end the two-tier system. Demands along these lines will resonate with contingent members and disgruntled full-timers alike. We, the rank-and-file, must take meaningful steps to remedy the union’s historical deficit of democracy and deep inequities in order to create a union that can survive the tough times ahead.