This week, the supreme court delivered its long-anticipated decision in Janus v AFSCME, banning a major source of funding for public sector unions, called agency fees. For the US labor movement, it’s not quite a death blow, but it’s a crippling one. Because public sector unions now account for the majority of US union members, and these fees pay for unions’ day-to-day functions, denying them this revenue source starves them and hastens their demise, which was precisely what the conservative foundations backing the case always intended.
That the case against agency fees is predicated on a lie – to protect workers from something that does not exist, “compulsory union membership” – is beside the point. This is pure power politics. Republicans control all three branches of government and engineered a majority on the court. Corporations and the foundations they bankroll can sustain long legal crusades to tilt the playing field ever in their favor. The question for unions, which have always been on the losing end of that field, is how to survive.
One model for unions in the post-Janus era could be another modestly financed and increasingly unpopular membership organization: the National Rifle Association. Though a villain in the eyes of labor’s allies on the left, the gun lobby’s staying power in American politics should be an inspiration to activist groups across the spectrum.