What do public sector unions in Orange County turn to when facing an existential threat at the Supreme Court of the United States? People held signs spelling out “solidarity” in answering the question during an urgent noontime rally yesterday at UC Irvine. A new six-member coalition of campus unions banded together to sound the alarm on Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a case the high court began hearing oral arguments on this week and is posed to deal a devastating blow to the collective bargaining power of public sector unions in 22 “fair share” fee states like California.
Andrew Tonkavich, an English lecturer, longtime Weekly contributing writer, and secretary for University Council-American Federation of Teachers Local 2226 emceed the “Together We Rise” rally. He introduced speakers from all walks of campus life while dressed in a black robe looking every bit an Anteater at graduation, but really channeling justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Juan Castillo, the leadership development coordinator of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) union shared his experiences from the podium.
“I have been working for different unions here at this university and I have seen how people have benefited from having a union,” Castillo said. “Apparently, this bothers certain people and that’s why this attack that we are experiencing right now is an attack on the power of the workers.” Curious students stopped and listened to the rally in between classes while drummers from the Korean Resource Center hit the jing, sounding the gong’s resonant vibrations, after Castillo’s comments.
Before the Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus, another case involving Buena Park schoolteacher Rebecca Friedrichs came before the high court in 2016. Friedrichs sued the California Teachers Association for collecting “fair share” fees from her for collective bargaining even though she didn’t belong to the union. The premise of the case held that since the CTA negotiates contracts with the government, such fees are a form of political speech that Friedrichs and other teachers like her should be able to opt out of lest their first amendment rights be violated. A majority of Supreme Court justices appeared ready to agree with Friedrichs, but justice Antonin Scalia suddenly died and took his swing vote with him to the grave.
The labor movement dodged a bullet, but not for long. The same arguments in Friedrichs returned when Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, sued AFSCME. But the Supreme Court looks a little bit different than in 2016. Republicans refused to hold Senate confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia. Donald Trump won an upset victory over Hillary Clinton later that year. As president, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch who was confirmed by the Senate after Republicans exercised their “nuclear option.” As the expected swing vote, Gorsuch now holds the fate of public sector unions in his hands.
Back at UC Irvine, English professor Annie McClanahan gave the most fiery speech of the day warning that a decision in favor of Janus would mean more part-time faculty, poorer pay and worse health benefits for workers. The ripple effect would be felt in key facets of student life. “If you think Janus would only affect unionized workers on campus, you’re wrong,” McClanahan said. “It would also affect students whose ability to get financial aid might depend on a clerical worker in the Teamsters, whose mental health might depend on a healthcare provider in UPTE, who might need a flu shot from a nurse in CNA, whose ability to walk safely through campus depends on the skills of folks in SETC, whose meals are made and served by our brothers and sisters in AFSCME.”
Tonkavich urged people to like the new Facebook page for the UC Irvine Union Coalition, formed in response to the Janus threat. AFSCME 3299, which represents campus service workers at UC Irvine and its medical center in Orange, belongs to the coalition and co-sponsored the rally. It ended with a rendition of Ralph Chaplin’s eternal labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.” After the rally goers dispersed, Tonkavich supported the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education case precedent that stands to be overturned. “The fees are called ‘fair share,’ because they’re fair,” he said. “And now these right-wing creeps figured out a way to very slyly take the rug from under us. We would lose many members and we would lose their dues.”
Lora Mjolsness, a UC Irvine lecturer who teaches Russian, also voiced her concerns. “Students are going to have a lot less stability in their classes,” she said. “We’re going to have less bargaining power. All those services workers who keep the university running on a daily basis, imagine what kind of effect that’s going to have on the students who are trying to get their education here.”