Live by the State, Die by the State

The Janus v. AFSCME decision has come down this morning. As expected, the right wing of the Supreme Court, bolstered by Donald Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch, has delivered a serious blow to public-sector unions like the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) by outlawing the agency fee on spurious First Amendment grounds.

What does Janus mean? As Celine McNicholas explains in this video, under current law unions must represent—in other words, spend money to defend—all workers in a bargaining unit, regardless of whether or not they choose to join the union. In a 1977 decision called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the US Supreme Court ruled that unions may charge non-members a fee to help cover these costs and to prevent non-members from “free riding,” or reaping the benefits of union membership while allowing their colleagues to pick up the tab. There is no question that non-members benefit from the union’s efforts on their behalf—indeed, unions raise wages not only for those covered by their agreements, but in wholly non-unionized sectors as well.

The Janus case represents an effort by a small number of wealthy, corporate-backed right-wing foundations to weaken public sector unions, which not only redistribute wealth by pressuring governments to pay their employees a living wage, but are a main source of financial and organizational support for Democratic Party politicians. As a follow-up, we should expect a well-financed campaign to convince PSC members, including adjuncts, to leave the union.

There is no doubt that Janus will hurt the PSC. It will make it harder for the organization to fulfill its basic responsibilities, such as defending members from the depredations of a hostile and bungling management. At the same time, it may provide an incentive for leaders to devote fewer resources to lobbying and elite-focused media campaigns and more to organizing, to maintaining a presence on the campuses, and to reaching out to members and non-members alike, for whom the PSC is at present little more than a line on their paycheck.

Historically, maintenance of membership policies like the agency fee have been a double-edged sword. The origins of such policies lie in the Second World War, when government officials sought to bind workers to their union leaders in exchange for those leaders’ accommodating stance in accepting wage freezes (while corporate profits soared) and preventing strikes.1 The overall historical role of agency fees has been to strengthen union leadership vis-à-vis members and to lend weight to their moderate approach, one that eschews militancy and direct action for collaboration and moral appeals. Indeed, lawyers for the California Teachers Association, in arguments during a related case, boasted openly of the agency fee’s effectiveness in preventing strikes and permitting union leaders to more effectively accommodate the perspective of management, who through agreements like the agency fee are converted into partners of the union leadership while remaining enemies of the rank-and-file.

The prospect that the union will take a large financial hit has PSC leaders quaking. Their main response has been to mount a frantic “re-commitment” effort designed to get members to pledge not to abandon the union. Unfortunately, it has not been accompanied by a conversation about why precisely it is that so many members, especially adjuncts, feel disconnected from the organization and unenthusiastic about its efforts. Imagine how much better off we would be if people gave the PSC money because they wanted to instead of being coerced via deals worked out between union leaders and their allies in the political establishment of blue states like New York.2 The Janus case should provoke a serious conversation about our union’s overall approach, one for which PSC leaders have as yet displayed little appetite.

Above all, we have to remember that an organization is not the same as its leadership. The PSC, which has around 25,000 members, is effectively controlled by about four people, whose authority rests less on a democratic mandate from the rank-and-file than a series of private relationships among those entrenched at the top. This arrangement mirrors New York State politics as a whole, where voter turnout is among the worst in the country and an ossified, entrenched political class serves the wealthy while consenting to appear progressive when it will cost them little. The PSC’s current modus operandi depends on a demobilized rank-and-file whose attitudes are reflected in sparse attendance at chapter meetings, when they even occur, and Delegate Assemblies, which frequently struggle to achieve a quorum. As we have argued, this is largely by design.

Like many union leaders, PSC officials instinctively fear rank-and-file democracy as a threat to their power, rather than embracing it as the one thing capable of turning the tide against austerity. If the leadership wishes to truly harness the power of a mobilized rank-and-file, it will have to give up its addiction to a rotting political system in which they imagine they are savvy players but manage to lose most of the time—not because they are not smart people, but because the rules of the game are stacked against all of us.

For several years now CUNY Struggle has sought to map a militant, independent alternative, one rooted in real solidarity across titles and an active, confrontational stance towards a management that has no problem confronting us. We seek to end the one-sided class war that has been waged against working people in this country for the last forty years and to make it a real fight, one in which we use the resources we have at our disposal—numbers and a commitment to higher education, to the working-class students we serve, and to the dignity of working people across this city. These principles cohere in our current campaign—to compel a conversation about tactics and vision in our union under the banner of $7K or STRIKE! Join us.

1. Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

2. At the same time, anything that means less money for the corrupt and ineffectual New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which refuses to support our struggle for $7K for adjuncts and squanders our dues on propping up right-wing Democrats like now-humiliated Congressman Joseph Crowley, whom NYSUT leaders, in all their wisdom, supported against a genuinely progressive candidate, has the potential to be salutary in the long run. The PSC needs to leave the moribund NYSUT and become the spearhead of a new regional labor movement in step with the political changes that are sweeping the country.

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