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Commentary: Why #Union should be just the beginning

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27: Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, June 27, 2018 in New York City. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that public employee unions cannot require non-members to pay fees. The ruling will have significant financial impacts for organized labor.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Mother Jones is not just a magazine, friends. An epic figure long revered in the labor movement, Mary G. Harris Jones helped lead a people-powered uprising that established workplace rights for mine workers and shined a light on the horrors of child labor in the United States in the early 1900s. At a time when women had not yet won the right to vote, she marched her "Children's Crusade" right to the doorstep of President Theodore Roosevelt and leveraged the media to build public support for the workers. Though Mother Jones lived and fought a century ago, her mission and the stakes of that battle could not be more relevant than they are today.

When the Supreme Court ruled against labor unions in Janus v. AFSCME late last month, the 5-4 decision was heralded by conservatives and lamented by progressives who are set to suffer the consequences for the foreseeable electoral future. Immediately, the Supreme Court's decision to prohibit unions from collecting "fair share" dues from nonunion workers – who benefit from bargaining agreements negotiated on behalf of all public sector employees regardless of their union membership status – will mean mean millions of dollars in lost dues for the labor movement. 

New York and California have already announced the end of automatic dues collections in their states. While that means less money for labor unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the National Education Association (NEA), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to continue to push for good-paying jobs with benefits for teachers and other public employees, it will ultimately mean substantially less money for these unions to impact the political arena as well, assuming an exodus of union members follows the ruling.

That is bad news for Democrats and progressive organizations whose campaigns and operations depend in large part on reliable labor dollars and an engaged union membership to support their work. The 2016 electoral cycle saw unions spend more money to support Democratic candidates than ever before, with their combined financial contributions amounting to more than $167 million. That sum is far from enough to outstrip conservatives, whose PACs and most wealthy individual donors regularly outspend unions every election. But coupled with the ability to recruit and deploy armies of union member volunteers to hit the phones and knock doors in high DPI neighborhoods, union dollars have been a key part of Democratic progress for more than a generation.

Truth be told, unions were dying long before the Janus decision. When I began working in the labor movement nearly 20 years ago, I was thrilled and proud to don the ubiquitous purple of SEIU. I felt the power of working people standing together to demand more from the most privileged in America, and I drew energy from the strikes and marches and bargaining meetings I witnessed. While the labor unions of today are a far cry from two decades ago — in good ways and in bad ones — the union experience I had then masked what was already a movement in decline. 

Union density among all U.S. workers was at just 13.5 percent at the start of the millennium, with union membership significantly higher for public sector employees – 4 in 10 compared with less than 1 in 10 for the private sector. The process for union elections mandated by the 1948 National Labor Relations Act hurt union organizing drives about as much as it helped, with "management consultants" regularly gaming the system and spreading misinformation to sway worker votes. Meanwhile, the downward spiral in job quality, benefits, and workplace protections coinciding with the decrease in manufacturing jobs was also reverberating across other industries powered by working people. These trends have continued in recent years, with overall union density down to 10.5 percent and closer to 3 in 10 public sector workers in unions in 2017 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the Janus decision, labor is now in free fall.

There is another way. The plight of working people has not been more dire in decades — nor has there ever been more jockeying by candidates on both sides of the aisle to be labeled champion of the working class. In the midst of despair, unions now have a real chance to reconnect with the working people. The recent social media push among labor organizers to demonstrate support for unions with a placard and photo marked #Union is a start. But in the wake of Janus, labor really needs to go all in.

We have seen the fury that progressives can assemble when it's clear what's under attack — whether that's women's rights, the sanctity of science, the plight of immigrants seeking asylum, our schoolchildren facing down guns. It's up to unions now — with the declining resources they have left — to remind America what happened before they were the shield of the working man and woman and child, and what is likely to happen should they disappear altogether. It's time for a message campaign — a massive rebranding effort, really. And it's time for the 14.8 million union members left in the U.S. to take their message and their fight to the streets. 

There's reason for labor unions to be hopeful. More than half of Americans now view labor unions positively according to an April survey by the Pew Research Center – fully 55 percent compared to 41 percent in 2011. Gallup polling has similarly shown a steady rise in public opinion about labor unions in recent years, from 48 percent in 2009 to 61 percent in 2017. This shift in perception may be due to the recent teachers' protests in places like Oklahoma and West Virginia, where people saw union members advocating for higher quality education and basic classroom needs. But it's also probably a reflection of the general feeling that working people are continuing to lose in a system that has been rigged against them. It's critical that labor defines the stakes and makes the connection for the people who need and benefit from unions most – so they can be engaged in the fight to defend them.

Unions ended child labor in America and helped establish the minimum wage. They fought for and won a 40-hour workweek for everyone. They created workplace safety standards. But they're not done yet. Income inequality continues to grow, and that hard-fought federal minimum wage hasn't been raised in nine years -- it stands at $7.25 an hour, less than half of a living wage of $15 an hour. 

Hashtag that.

  • Lynda Tran

    CBSN contributor Lynda Tran is a founding partner of progressive grassroots strategy firm 270 Strategies