2paragraphs: What does the Supreme Court decision on Harris v. Quinn mean for the future of American workers?
Philip Dine: Though the Harris v. Quinn decision was written in somewhat narrow terms, like most court rulings, and didn’t overturn settled law, its effects on American workers will be harmful and, depending on future interpretations, potentially devastating. It will hurt the workers directly affected, who have benefited from their union contracts with wages rising sharply from their original minimum level. And it will hurt unions, which will have a deleterious effect on workers throughout the country. The court’s decision involves public-sector employees, central to labor’s future. They have over time been one of the economy’s few growth sectors, the jobs are rarely exportable – and a few years ago they became the majority of union membership for the first time. So, hit the public sector and you hit the heart of today’s labor movement. And the specific employees in this case are healthcare workers, a rapidly unionizing profession. The ruling’s implication that workers could benefit from union contracts without paying either union dues or a fee stands to weaken unions financially by encouraging “free-riders” and by hurting future organizing efforts with the union deprived of needed funds.
Why, though, would the further weakening of unions hurt workers? Simply put: It is no coincidence that the period of labor’s greatest strength, the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, saw the greatest expansion of the middle class in U.S. history – or that the assault on labor over the past 30 years has been accompanied by a shrinking of the middle class. History aside, the functioning of our industrial relations system, long a key to our economic prosperity, rests on the active participation of the various parties – management, labor and government. Nobody always wins, nobody always loses, but over time the best public policies and private practices emerge. When any of those entities is marginalized, we see the skewed outcomes of recent years. If historical or functional analysis doesn’t suffice, consider common sense – why would it be at a time when corporate clout is more concentrated, powerful and distant than ever, that workers should be able to fend for themselves as individuals? It’s already harder to form a union in the United States than in any other western democracy because of employer hostility and a labyrinthine labor law system. This ruling will only exacerbate that situation.