About 150 workers and students gathered in the Quarry Plaza on Feb. 26, rallying support for unions in the Mark Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) case.
Janus, the plaintiff in the case and employee for the state of Illinois, claims AFSCME violated his First Amendment rights by forcing him to pay fees even though he didn’t share the union’s political views. Unions are required by law to represent all workers, not just the ones who are members. The landmark supreme court case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977 ruled that due to this obligation, unions can collect dues from non-member workers in certain states, including California.
Nicolas Gutierrez, a senior custodian at UC Santa Cruz for the last 23 years who has been on the executive board for the local AFSCME union for the last 12 years, said a victory for Janus would be a blow to workers just as much as the unions that represent them.
“It is not just AFSCME, it is all unions that are going to be affected. People are happy having unions, they live with more dignity, make better benefits and we need all of that,” Gutierrez said. “If they take that away from us, [workers] are just going to need to go to the state for support, and we don’t want that.”
The Supreme Court defaulted to the Abood v. Board ruling in the similar 2016 Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case when the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent death caused a 4-4 tie.
With newly appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, the outcome of Janus v. AFSCME may prevail in favor of Janus due to the current leanings of the justices. This would open the door for massive union membership loss as all workers could be advocated for without giving dues, leaving little incentive to remain a paying member.
Monday’s protest was organized through a collaborative effort by University Labor United (ULU) and the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition (WSSC). The WSSC members dove into issues such as racial justice, overcrowding and tuition hikes in addition to the case.
WSSC, formed winter quarter of 2017, aims to demonstrate solidarity between workers and students in demanding for basic human rights.
Coalition members joined to protest the university administration’s lack of response to mediocre work conditions.
“What is happening right now is [the university is] firing workers, and workers are leaving, and a lot of workers are on medical leave because their bodies are so broken down and exploited because they are being asked to do more than a person can do,” said WSSC members in a joint statement.
Many of the workers on campus face harsh working conditions, they said, and more than half are people of color.
Rebecca Gilpas, field organizer at AFSCME for service and patient care workers on campus, said people of color have suffered the most from workers’ rights issues, and that there was much to be lost from the court case.
“We have a really good contract with the university, but if we lose most of our members, like we anticipate doing if they have a choice to pay or not, the university will know that we’re weakened, and not only will they not help us negotiate for better wages, but they’ll probably try to erode those that we’ve negotiated over the past few decades,” Gilpas said.
Protesters also identified corporations as enemies of the workforce. Organizers and students said private corporations have a vested interest in weaker unions because this gives them more control over employee contracts, at the cost of lower benefits and wages for workers.
Mark Janus, the plaintiff, is backed by conservative billionaires, think tanks and corporate donors such as the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation. In response, unions are expanding their outreach efforts through protest and recruitment, especially in places with large public worker populations like UCSC.
Roxi Power, vice president for organizing statewide at University Council – American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) and a writing lecturer at UCSC, said local labor unions are increasing their presence in the community to remind workers of the unions’ importance.
“We need to not be invisible anymore, because if [workers] don’t support us, they don’t support themselves. […] We’re trying to get members and activate members,” Power said.
AFSCME and other unions claim these dues are not an infringement because all workers benefit from union bargaining, and union bargaining is not inherently political. Union activities involve political actions in addition to their standard collective bargaining, and workers can opt to only pay dues for the bargaining.
“[The plaintiff’s] aim is to destroy collective bargaining, but they’re calling it a free speech issue,” Power said. “We happen to disagree, and we happen to disagree with their terminology of right to work. It’s right to earn a living wage, but they’ve reappropriated workers’ rights language in a very deft move.”