Labor Day Special - encore presentation, Noam Scheiber, NY Times - There goes the union

Labor Day Special
encore presentation, Noam Scheiber, NY Times
There goes the union


Let me declare from the beginning, I have always been, and am today, a union guy.  I have been a strike chairman, a shop steward, and a member of the Board of the NY local of AFTRA, the broadcast industry performers’ union.

The last job, the one that sounds big, was the most frustrating, because I watched, out-voted, as my union moved to protect present jobs from the future, foolishly costing future jobs and, by the way, union jurisdiction over them.  Unions are not all-wise or always right.

But the correlation between union power and economic and social justice in America is undeniable, and the historical record shows, diminishing union strength links to rising inequality.

When I was the strike chairman at Metromedia’s radio flagships WNEW AM and FM in New York in 1968, my strength was the people who joined the union only because they had to.  These were the biggest stars of what was then NYC’s richest radio station, WNEW AM…people like William B. Williams, Julius LaRosa, Ted Brown and Gene Klavan, millionaires whose contracts were all negotiated separately from the union’s, even though they were part of a “union shop.”

When they acceded to my plea, “give me one more week on the picket line,” they forced the company to cave, and give the disc jockeys at the fast-rising rock platform WNEW FM a guaranteed minimum of $25,000 a year.

Why did the millionaires walk the line?  Because all of them but LaRosa who was a famous pop singer when he became a WNEW jock, had worked their ways up, happy when they worked for the pay scales and protections the union had bargained for them.  Thus, they were willing to forgo a chunk out of their annual paycheck to help me bargain for their bottom rung colleagues.

Solidarity pays off, especially for the lowest-paid workers.

Both union solidarity and low-paid workers, immigrants, women, especially women of color, LGBT people and the progressive political movement all took a beating from the Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision in the case Janus vs the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In its latest expansion of America’s “right to work” universe, the Court’s 5 conservatives – Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Gorsuch and Alito decreed that public employee unions could no longer collect an “agency fee” from workers who refused to join the union that had bargained for their compensation and work rules. Rubbing it in, the decision, written by Alito, says the union can only collect dues from workers who actively declare their membership.  If this were legislation it would be called the Easy Rider Enablement Act.

In justifying his decision, Justice Alito hangs it on the First Amendment:  “We conclude that this arrangement [agency fees] violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

This is either judicial confusion or dementia.  “Private speech” is not the issue here. “Private speech” requires no subsidy.  What the Alito decision suppresses is public speech, the very thing the First Amendment was written to protect.

Alito’s argument seems to be that unions may collect no money to make public speech in behalf of political ideas or candidates, if those statements have less than unanimous support from their shop.  Where else is such a unanimity standard enshrined in American law? And how is a dissenting dues-payer robbed of his or her First Amendment rights to publically disagree with the union?

The primary institutional effect of abolishing agency fees will be to crimp the collective free speech of unions, and to weaken the progressive organizations union money has supported.



Noam Scheiber is a writer for The New York Times and a former senior editor for The New Republic.  He is a Rhodes Scholar and holds a masters degree in economics from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and economics from Tulane University.

His book, The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery was released in February 2012. Based on more than 250 interviews combined with the author’s own opinions it tells about the Obama administration’s economic team and their handling of the economic recovery.



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