A Dagger in the Heart of Workers and Our Democracy: What's Behind the Janus Court Ruling

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. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court’s transparent effort to decapitate public sector unions in its 5-4 Janus vs. AFSCME decision on Wednesday places a wide swath of public health and safety protections in its crosshairs as well.

By encouraging public workers to withdraw any financial support for the union’s considerable cost for representing them, the court’s corporate-aligned majority hopes to financially paralyze unions, leaving all its members and non-members alike vulnerable to employer retaliation if they act to defend the interests of the public as well as their own well being.

For registered nurses, the collective power of a strong union, such as National Nurses United, gives RNs the ability to challenge healthcare employers when they seek to slash patient services, close hospitals, or carry out unsafe practices, such as inadequate staffing, to pad profit margins and revenues.

Similar concerns face other settings, where unionized workers have the unity of their union to advance public priorities such as safe drinking water, clean air, untainted food, and less dangerous workplaces.

Many unions, like NNU, have been preparing for this widely expected ruling for months, emphasizing the public need for strong unions against the growing corporate and right wing assault on workers’ collective voice. As United Electrical Workers president Peter Knowlton aptly pointed out in response to Janus, the biggest threat to workers is not their union or unified co-workers, it’s their employer.

But there’s a darker underbelly to this threat, symbolized not just by Janus, but also by a steady stream of court decisions and actions in Congress and many states, all increasingly under the sway of anti-democratic and anti-union forces, like the Koch brothers, and other corporate and rightwing groups, that handpick legislators and judges to do their bidding.

It’s a dagger pointed at the heart of our nation, and our democracy.

One telling hint of who’s behind the curtain came shortly after the Janus ruling and the follow up announcement that Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring.

President Trump quickly announced he would anoint the successor to Kennedy from a pre-drawn list of far-right judges, the same list that produced Neil Gorsuch, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement he would move swiftly to confirm the new Justice before voters go to the polls in November. Less reported was an announcement from the Koch network that it would chip in at least $1 million to confirm any judge “in the mold of Justice Gorsuch.”

The Koch’s chilling agenda, and all the tentacles they influence, is extensively spelled out by historian Nancy MacLean in her seminal work Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America.

Collective action, represented by unions at their best, is a principle target. So is everyone who stands in the way of wealthy corporations and the super rich. Their end game is to overturn the fundamental premise of majority rule, and lock in place permanent Constitutional changes to bar any limits on their oligarchical rule.

Evidence of their work is everywhere:

Voter suppression laws enacted in dozens of states;

Partisan gerrymandering to protect and expand the hold on Congress;

Expansion of anti-union right-to-work laws that mirror the Janus ruling in the private sector;

New laws to restrict public protest, to pre-empt local governments from progressive challenges to corporate and rightwing power, and the legal ability of people to challenge corporate power in the courts; and

Decimating the ability of government to provide for public health, safety and economic security, including through attacks on common good programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, workplace safety, and environmental programs.

To this crowd, as MacLean notes, no public program or collective action is legitimate, if it can or has the potential to interfere with “liberty,” by which they mean unbridled authority and wealth accumulation for the elite and the super rich. Some call it the “full liability society” – you’re on your own, for everything.

Appointing judges to carry out decisions like Janus is part of the agenda. Koch aligned academic centers have reportedly already trained up to 40 percent of all federal judges. And the packing of Congress, White House, and state governments with rightwing funded politicians, abetted by the corruption and hijacking of elections is increasingly evident.

We’re not giving up.  Collective action is the only way forward to protect our nation, our democracy, and all our people, the way every substantive reform has ever been one in the U.S. The game is not over, but the clock is ticking.