The Supreme Court of the United States dealt a major blow to public labor unions on Wednesday (June 27). In a 5-4 decision, with conservative justices in the majority, the Court ruled that government employees who choose not to join labor unions will no longer be required to pay collective bargaining fees, also known as “fair share” dues

Mark Janus, the plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, claimed that those fees violate his freedom of speech because the organization lobbies the government and he does not agree with the union’s political positions. The defendant, American Federation Of State, County and Municipal Employees, argued that non-members benefit from collective bargaining regardless of their membership. The union also pointed out that it is prohibited from using dues to for political or ideological advocacy.

Public labor unions must now brace for the worst. The elimination of fair share dues could seriously threaten their financial stability, bargaining power and membership, as governmental unions have a legal duty to provide equal representation to all workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Many advocates have criticized the Janus decision as a threat to democracy and political organizing. From the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 to AIDS activism in the 1980s to the battle for immigrants’ rights of late, labor unions have long been a part of social movements fighting racism and patriarchy. And it’s no surprise; collective bargaining is a major vehicle for women and people of color advocating for socioeconomic mobility and it has ensured protections against wage theft, discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Of concern now is how the Supreme Court’s ruling will disproportionately hurt women of color, particularly Black women, who make up the largest percentage of government employees at nearly 18 percent. According to a report from the National Women’s Law Center, union membership boosts equal pay for Black, Asian and Latinx women. But the outcome of Janus v. AFSCME could potentially erode this progress.

Colorlines spoke with Alicia Garza, strategy and partnerships director at National Domestic Workers Alliance, to dive into the aftermath of this decision. Here, she discusses the role collective bargaining plays in racial and gender equality and what the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate fair share dues in the public sector could mean for communities of color. 

How have fair share dues and collective bargaining historically improved working conditions for women of color?

If you think about government work and any place where women of color are, unfortunately, it’s tinged by sexism and racism. So the goal of unions is to equalize the playing field. And it’s to make sure that the people who are powering our economy aren’t being exploited and taken advantage of. When unions are attacked, as they were in the Janus decision, what they’re really attacking is people’s ability to make decisions over their own lives and people’s ability to ensure that they can live with dignity. When we attack public sector unions, we’re attacking wages, sexual harassment protections in the workplace, and the ability of workers to have any kind of security or safety. That’s why this decision is important. And it’s far-reaching; it represents an overall strategy to try to implement “right to work” [laws] across the country and to delegitimize the will of the people. And the will of the people is that workers are protected and make a fair wage and are able to make the kind of wages that allow them to better themselves and their families.

The Supreme Court’s decision will disproportionately hurt Black women, who make up nearly 18 percent of public sector workers and are paid just 65 cents on the dollar compared to White men. How will this ruling threaten the fight to close the gender and race wage gap?

When you look at how the economy is structured, you see that people of color in particular are at a severe disadvantage. We did a study at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “The Status of Black Women in the United States.” What we found across the board is that Black women are making less than White women in the economy, making less than White men, Black men and less than almost everybody except for Latinas and Indigenous women. What we also found is that the presence of unions in workplaces actually helps to close that gap because workers are able to advocate for better wages, work conditions and quality of life.

When you have a Supreme Court decision that essentially says, the organizations that fight on your behalf cannot require you to pay into them, it’s a very tricky terrain because what they’re actually saying is that unions don’t benefit workers as a whole. And that is a corporate attack. That’s a line that’s advanced by people who make profits off workers and who benefit from workers being paid low wages and being in terrible conditions. Without the presence of unions, we see many more people being affected because they’re more vulnerable to abuses from their employers.

Should we be concerned about how this decision will affect non-governmental unions that represent vulnerable groups?

Absolutely. Even though this was a case specifically about the public sector unions, we should expect that this kind of decision will negatively impact labor unions as a whole. And, of course, we see the highest levels of union participation in women and people of color, because of the protections they offer.

What concerns do you have?

I’m concerned that this weakens the ability of workers to collectively bargain, that it weakens the ability for women and people of color to advocate for the things that we need. And I’m especially concerned that this represents a real turning point in a country that’s really proud of the democracy that we’ve built. This decision really indicates an erosion in the democracy that is fundamental to the idea of the United States.

This is fundamentally an attack on democracy and free speech. Communities of color are living in conditions that are far worse than their White counterparts. Unions are a critical component of ensuring that there is equity between wealthy communities and impoverished communities, between communities of color and White communities.

And when we talk about power and privilege, what we know is that it’s concentrated with those in this country who are White, male and enjoy a better sense of financial security. We should be really concerned about the fact that this is an attack on organizing and on people. In this moment when our president is attacking immigrants, Muslims and women, we should see this case as a culmination of those attacks. Because, unfortunately, the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be a neutral ruler in the land, is falling very heavily inside an ideology that threatens the fundamental fabric of this society.