Going into 2018, the writing on the wall spelled doom for organized labor. Trump had seemingly tricked large sectors of the country into believing that he was a populist aimed at reconfiguring the global economy to serve US workers—then, once in power, he staffed federal agencies with anti-union ideologues, while cutting sweetheart deals for corporations and the wealthy. The federal government at large was poised to attack organized labor on every front, through legislation and in the courts, and state governments were expected to continue submitting to a decades-long campaign by the 1 percent to undo a century of union progress. Yet, despite this dire outlook, there came moments of truly astonishing solidarity that resulted in previously unimaginable victories.
These are the three worst stories for workers from the year thus far, the stories to make you hang your head—and three more to pick up your chin.
Two-Faced Betrayal: Janus v. AFSCME
Without question, the biggest loss borne by organized labor in 2018 was the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME in June. Coming down 5-4 in favor of Mark Janus in his suit against his union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions’ levying fees on non-union members is a violation of the First Amendment. The case is expected to have ramifications throughout the country, as already embattled unions are forced to represent non-members who contribute nothing in dues or fees. As Moshe Z. Marvit described, rather than being an issue of free speech, Janus v. AFSCME is the culmination of an anti-labor campaign by wealthy business owners and their lackey politicians that was 65 years in the making.
No Class: Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis
While Janus stole the limelight, it was actually the second drubbing the Supreme Court gave labor in 2018. One month before Janus, the Court ruled, in another 5-4 decision, that employment contracts mandating individual arbitration supersede the rights of workers to take collective legal action, such as class-action lawsuits. The case, dubbed Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, was actually the consolidation of three different suits: two in which employers sought to quash legal challenges against them by employees seeking overtime compensation, and one by the National Labor Relations Board asserting workers’ right to collective legal action. The defeat of the employees and the NLRB means that US workers who toil under contracts mandating arbitration—more than 85 million of them, as reported by Michelle Chen—have lost legal rights that they held just four months ago.
Federal Union Busters: Trump’s NLRB Appointees
As a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board is governed by five board members appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. Trump has assigned three of the current board members, as well as the agency’s general counsel, and the results have been predictably hostile to labor. Michelle Chen highlighted one especially troubling development: In 2015, the NLRB’s previous general counsel argued that McDonald’s was a joint employer of all franchisee employees, possibly paving the way for chain-wide unionization; that case was sabotaged earlier this year by the NLRB’s new general counsel, Peter Robb, who requested a 60-day stay on the trial to obtain a settlement. Whereas a trial victory could have established a precedent applicable to all franchises, a settlement will allow McDonald’s to simply cut a deal. The case is still pending, but the outlook is grim—especially as two Trump-appointed NLRB board members, Chairman John Ring and William Emanuel, previously worked for union-busting law firms.