The Janus Ruling Is a Blow to Public Unions. It's Especially Bad for Black Women.

The Supreme Court's decision could weaken unions' collective bargaining power, which has historically benefited women of color more than most.
by | July 9, 2018
Letitia James, public advocate for the city of New York, participates in a rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case. (Tribune News Service/Sipa USA/NurPhoto/Karla Ann Cote)

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing employees to opt out of paying fees to the unions who represent them will impact public-sector unions across the country, potentially weakening their collective bargaining power.

But the 5-4 ruling in the case, known as Janus v. AFSCME, could have an especially bad impact on African-American women, according to an analysis done by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

“The groups that most benefit from collective bargaining are those who are most vulnerable in the labor market,” says Economic Policy Institute Vice President John Schmitt. “The challenge for black women in the labor market is that they face double discrimination based on race and based on gender.”

Black workers in general are more than 30 percent more likely than their white counterparts to belong to a labor union, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And it's black women who make up the largest single demographic among public union workers, accounting for more than one in every six, according to EPI.

Labor unions, however, have helped women of all backgrounds close gaps in pay and career advancement, according to recent BLS data. When not represented by a union, black women typically earn 67 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, while white women make 80 cents for every dollar earned by a white male. But the gap closes for union employees, with black women earning 72 cents for every dollar earned by a white man, and white women earning 88 cents for every dollar made by a white male worker.

Perhaps the most acute impact will be in public schools, where women make up three-fourths of employees. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sees the Janus decision as one motivated by politics and aimed squarely at an employment sector that has allowed women -- and especially women of color -- to gain access to the middle class.

“What’s amazing is that the right wing has set its sights on public-sector unions when at this moment they are disproportionately female and disproportionately people of color,” Weingarten says. “It’s pretty offensive.”

Labor unions, says EPI's Schmitt, set the terms of employment and advancement in the public sector. Unions help shape job titles, functions and qualifications for public-sector positions. Most importantly, he says, those qualifications and functions are made publicly transparent. For that reason, he argues, black women have been able to not only gain employment in the public sector but advance in ways they have not in non-union employment.

Under the Janus decision, workers will no longer be required to pay so-called agency fees to compensate their unions for representing them in negotiations and labor disputes. The effect could mean less money for labor unions, as some workers decide to stop paying the fees.

“I think there is a natural human tendency to be a free rider. People often say, ‘Look, I can get the wages and the benefits [of being in a union], and if I have a dispute with my boss, I can get the union to take care of me without paying for it,'” says Schmitt.

In recent weeks, some conservative organizations have mounted a coordinated effort to persuade union members to stop paying agency fees. Weingarten points out that those efforts have largely focused on educators and not on police and firefighters, whose unions are largely male.

“I didn’t see the Mackinac Center [for Public Policy] get every single police officer and every firefighter and try to get them to drop from their union,” she says, referring to one conservative think tank that has encouraged teachers to stop paying union dues.

Weingarten says the Supreme Court decision won’t derail unions entirely but will likely strain labor relations and push unions to take more radical actions like the statewide teacher strikes that rattled the country this spring.