Litigating The Future Of The Middle Class

An upcoming Supreme Court case threatens to gut public sector unions.

Supreme Court Case Threatens To Gut Public Sector Unions

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: when unions thrive, so does the middle class. Not only have unions been essential in establishing fair labor standards, but union membership is also an important factor in economic mobility. Unfortunately, anti-union lawmakers in states across the country have been fighting to erode the power of unions by advancing so called right-to-work laws. Now, that partisan attempt to weaken unions has been taken to the Supreme Court in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Amicus briefs were filed for the case earlier this month, and oral arguments will be held in January of next year.

The case has the potential to hit already-struggling public-employee unions by imposing a right-to-work standard for all government employees. Right-to-work laws inhibit workers from collectively bargaining for better wages, benefits and protections under the guise of ‘choice,’ and have been a popular policy push by many conservative governors. Such laws allow some workers to get the advantatges of a union contract—like higher wages, benefits, and protection against arbitraty discipline—without paying any fee associated with negotiating on these matters.

The case is being brought by the Center for Individual Rights, which, the American Prospect recently revealed, has received funding by Koch Brothers-linked groups, other elite conservatives, and even white supremacists. They are trying to make it harder for ordinary Americans, like teachers, nurses, and social workers to provide for their families and achieve a middle class life-style through collective bargaining. Here are just a few reasons why that would be devastating to America’s middle class:

  • Workers earn less in right-to-work states: The average worker in a right-to-work state makes about $1,560 less annually than the average worker in a state without such a law. The rate of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower in right-to-work states, and the rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower. All workers, not just government workers, would suffer if a right-to-work standard were imposed over all public employees.
  • Union membership supports middle-class incomes: As unions go, so goes the middle class. According to research from the Center for American Progress, as union membership has declined, so too has the middle-class share of income. If the unions are undermined the whole middle class will suffer.
  • Union membership and economic mobility go hand-in-hand: Upward mobility and opportunity define the American dream. And groundbreaking research from researchers at Harvard, Wellesley, and the Center for American Progress found that economic mobility thrives where unions thrive. The report shows a strong relationship between union membership and intergenerational economic mobility. Weakening unions puts the American dream further out-of-reach for many American children.

BOTTOM LINE: Stagnant wages and rising prices are squeezing the middle-class making it harder to get by and seemingly impossible to get ahead. We know that one of the best ways to help raise wages for middle-class workers is through strong unions. By threatening to undermine public-sector unions, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could make it even harder for hard-working Americans to get by, much less get ahead.

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