A year after ‘Janus,’ the Pa. labor movement is as strong as ever | Opinion

July 3, 2019 6:30 am

(Capital-Star file)

By Eric Rosso

Many opinions were given on the fate of the labor movement almost one year ago.

Most of them were some variation on how it had just received a fatal blow by the Supreme Court. One notable opinion commented that labor relations would change “in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

Those words came in the dissenting opinion of the Janus V. AFSCME Supreme Court Case.

A case that was bankrolled by anti-union front groups with the political promise that it would be the end of the labor movement. These billionaire funded organizations, like Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, celebrated the ruling with announcements of large scale, multi-million dollar campaigns to convince workers to drop out of their union.

One year removed from the decision, it’s worth reflecting on both the predictable and wholly unexpected ways the Janus V. AFSCME case has affected Pennsylvania.

In what could fall under the predictable category, The Commonwealth Foundation, through at least five different branded front groups and a multi-year $32 million campaign, failed to convince much of anyone to leave their union.

It was always a specious argument that the same groups who work to gut pensions, destroy public education funding, and lobby against increasing the minimum wage were going to be credible messengers about worker rights. In fact, Pennsylvania’s union membership is on the rise and unions currently receive their highest levels of public support in years.

Realizing they weren’t credible messengers to workers, groups like the Commonwealth Foundation have switched tactics, and brands.

Pennsylvania has become a hub for anti-union lawsuits by front groups like The Fairness Center and Liberty Justice Center. In what could also fall under the predictable category, Mark Janus, the lead plaintiff in the Janus V. AFSCME case, now works for the Liberty Justice Center as a highly paid professional union buster. He’s made Pennsylvania a top priority at the Liberty Justice Center.

However, this new round of frivolous, anti-union litigation is also failing in the courts.

In stark contrast to the failures of these anti-union front groups, Pennsylvania’s unions and workers are winning, and in wholly unexpected ways. Innovative protections for workers, both in unionized and non-unionized industries, are being passed locally in Pennsylvania.

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In Philadelphia, fair workweek and “just cause” laws are set to give thousands stronger job protections and an innovative Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is being held up as a national model. This has led to similar pro-worker legislation being introduced in the state legislature in Harrisburg.

Health care and airport workers won multi-year organizing campaigns that have lifted wages for workers and given them stronger influence against management.

Hotel workers from Pennsylvania won industry wide sexual harassment protections on the job. Employees at UMPC have been challenging their employer’s corporate power in Pittsburgh. In Erie, manufacturing workers went on the largest strike in that sector during the Trump administration.

This coincides with a trend that we have seen nationally which led to a record number of union members striking in 2018.

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This was led by the ‘Red for Ed’ movement that took place across teacher unions. In Pennsylvania, teachers from Harrisburg, East Stroudsburg, Pittsburgh, and others exercised their right to strike to secure more funding for their classrooms.

Despite the Janus V. AFSCME decision and the stated intentions of its billionaire funders, the labor movement also remains a vital force for pro-worker elected officials. Pennsylvania’s 2018 elections saw candidates propelled to victory who had backing of union members as important validators in their communities. Politicians who espouse anti-union views went down in stunning defeat.

In fact, labor unions are changing the face of campaigns themselves with one of the first collectively bargained contracts for campaign staff happening in Pennsylvania. Presidential campaigns have followed suit.

This was not a unique trend. Pennsylvania has also seen other new industries organizing, often led by millennial workers and immigrant workers. In addition to collective bargaining in campaigns, organizing at Uber, Lyft, and through digital media companies has changed the conversation about what professions can and can’t be unionized.

As the dissenting opinion stated, there were predictable and wholly unexpected ways the Janus V. AFSCME decision affected labor, just not in the way many political pundits predicted.

Workers, organizers, and members are flexing their power through a reinvigorated movement winning in traditional and non-traditional ways. One year out from the decision, Pennsylvania workers represent the best in the fight for economic justice.

Eric Rosso is the executive director of PA. Spotlight, a pro-labor and progressive advocacy group. He writes from Pittsburgh.

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