“Do Away With Unions”: Supreme Court Overturns Long Established Precedent

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Following the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on the public union case Mark Janus v. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, it seems prudent to consider how we’ve gotten to this point and what this ruling means for unions and for the labor movement entirely.

As per recent reporting by The Atlantic, the court’s ruling overturns precedent and rules that fair share fees violate Mr. Janus’s constitutional right to freedom of speech. This decision overturns prior ruling in the 1977 court case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and ignores the court precedent of stare decisis – the idea that courts should leave prior decisions as they are and use that precedent to help decide current cases. Perhaps helpful to the court in deciding this monumental strike against the unions are prior court cases such as Payne v. Tennessee where the Supreme Court decided that “Stare decisis is not an inexorable command; rather, it is a principle of policy and not a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.”

In a recent research paper on how the media covers unions, I consider how we got to this point and how the media have shaped the partisan division that we see largely present in the likely ruling by the Supreme Court.  The argument that Conservatives often make, relying heavily on frames of human interest and morality, have made their way into the decision by the court, deciding with Mr. Janus that his constitutional rights have supremacy above “overemphasized concerns” regarding labor unrest and stability in the workplace. The majority is composed of typical party-line stalwarts: Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

In the court’s dissents – one by Justice Sotomayor and the other by Justice Kagan and joined by justices Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg – the ruling is denounced as an attack on unions rather than a case about the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff, Mr. Janus. Serious questions about the court’s overturning of the Abood case and the court’s repudiation of stare decisis without ample evidence to fundamentally overturn the labor system as it stands are at the center of the court’s decision. Justice Sotomayor quipped during the hearing that ““You’re basically arguing, ‘Do away with unions,’” foreshadowing the ideological division between the Conservative and dissenting justices.

As the workplace changes in the modern era one may wonder how the labor movement will respond to the undermining of its efforts. Public unions have been a last bastion of financial support, with a large number of public employees belonging to unions. As the unions respond to the new state of affairs it will be interesting to see how longstanding union strongholds – like Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Illinois – where the case originated – respond. While it would be fair to expect more labor instability in historically pro-union states to come to the forefront following this decision, the way other states such as Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida respond to the state of labor politics will be interesting to watch.

In my research I study how the media have covered unions in op-eds and the ways in which those articles frame the issue – framing along the morality, human interest, conflict, economic interest, and responsibility frames. What I have found is a clear partisan division on the issue, with conservative outlets proving largely anti-labor and liberals heavily pro-labor – this should be rather unsurprising.

What surprised me most was that despite the hold that Republicans hold in states such as Montana, Kentucky, and Missouri these states have not passed anti-union “right to work” legislation. While my research is not an exhaustive analysis of labor politics in this republic, it does offer an analysis of Conservative and Liberal publications.  Following the court’s ruling further research into labor unrest and the adaptations that unions make will provide a unique understanding of the changes occurring within the workplace.

The primary takeaways of my writing, I hope, are that the issue of constitutional law and its influence on the labor movement aren’t seen as a cut and dry division across partisan lines. Certainly there must be conservatives out there who are pro-labor – perhaps a look at Trump voters in Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be former 18th Congressional District sheds light on this demographic. However, in my research I found that the vast majority of liberal and conservative publications represented pro-labor and anti-union perspectives, respectively. My research, it should be noted, is not as exhaustive as it could have been. Given the small representative sample that I utilized in my research, however, the findings that I include at the end of my study show that while there are some overlaps in how each frames the issue – through the morality frame – the conclusions that these ideologically different publications make do not.

Like Congress, it seems that unions are a polarized institution in our divided political climate rather than viewed as an economic or collective bargaining institution.  Today’s unions are unfortunately viewed far more on a partisan basis in Conservative circles than through an economic perspective. Janus may have his day in court but it seems the unions are simply a victim of the politics of our time.  

For more a more in depth look, check out my research paper here.

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