Aliyya Lee had just worked from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. before stopping to meet her coworker Pam Johnston at Panera on Forbes Avenue. After passionately describing to me what’s at stake over 200 miles away as nine Supreme Court justices debate a labor union case, the pair left to defend unionized employees in the morning’s grievance hearings — all part of a union steward’s job.
The case in question, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, could overturn public sector unions’ 40-year-old right to charge non-members fees for benefits they receive as a result of collective bargaining agreements. Over the course of the last few months, Janus has become a political proxy war, pitting conservatives who tout it as a free speech case against liberals who say it threatens workers’ right to organize.
But to Johnston and Lee, free speech and the right to organize are indistinguishable — and both are on the line in Janus.
“Free speech to me, being a union member, is having a voice and a job,” Johnston said in a thick Lawrenceville accent.
Johnston works in Pitt’s facilities management department as a general maintenance employee. She’s been a member of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ for 25 years, and recently passed her long-time position of union steward to Lee so she could have more time to organize with 32BJ in other capacities.
32BJ represents more than 400 service employees on campus, from groundskeepers to Sodexo employees. The union is responsible for negotiating wage contracts, overtime benefits and health care, among other things. It’s a place of community, a family, a source of education — to Lee and Johnston, the union means everything.
“If anything were to change, who knows what our benefits would look like,” Lee said. “Who knows what our wages would look like.”
Janus is an inherently uncertain case, challenging a decades-old Supreme Court precedent. The plaintiff, Mark Janus, is a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. He is not a member of the local public sector union, and thus doesn’t have to pay union fees. But in Illinois and 21 other states, public sector employees are required to pay “agency” fees for benefits obtained through the union’s bargaining.
A 1977 case in Michigan, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, set the constitutional precedent for agency fees, but required that agency fees not be spent on a public sector union’s political activity, which can include lobbying and public demonstration costs.
The Supreme Court heard an agency fees case in January 2016 — Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — that questioned the very constitutionality of Abood. But little insight could be gained from the court’s nine-word opinion issued after Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in March 2016.
“The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court,” the per curiam, or “by the court,” decision read.
Janus is an opportunity for the court — and largely its newest appointee Neil Gorsuch, the only justice who didn’t vote in Friedrichs — to either solidify Abood and re-declare that agency fees are constitutional or overturn the precedent. Johnston thinks the latter would be disastrous.
“To me it’s taking your voice away from the job,” she said. “With a union we have the right to walk up and negotiate our own terms, and have protection and not be afraid of losing our jobs.”
Johnston thinks it’s a combination of unions’ negative connotation and “uneducated people” that make Janus even a question.
“The agency fees right now are only like a $3 difference from regular union fees,” she said. She said if non-union members want to avoid paying agency fees but still benefit from the union’s achievements, like a $15-per-hour minimum wage of a 40-hour work week, they’re missing the bigger picture.
“The union does a lot that people don’t understand, politically. We’re working class. If we don’t stick together or whatever, then we’ll never get it,” she said.
Johnston said without the union, she never would have been able to afford the house she lives in or the car she drives. Lee said without the union her daughter would have never been able to attend Pitt, a benefit for University service employees and their families. They’ve dedicated their lives to the union because they understand all employees might not have the ability to do so for themselves.
“Without the union, all [the University] is doing is listening to another janitor complain about something,” Johnston said.
Another legal term used to describe states in which workers cannot be forced to join unions before working is “right-to-work,” a term dating back to the early 1900s anti-union movement. Not including Pennsylvania, 28 states are currently “right-to-work” states. Janus would effectively make right-to-work the federal standard for public-sector employees.
“It’s funny because they call it ‘right-to-work.’ To me it’s right-to-struggle,” Johnston said. “That is very deceiving. People think, ‘I have a right to work.’ You have a right to work for pennies? You have a right to work with no voice on the job? Yeah you have that right, but why would you want that?”
The Supreme Court will likely issue its decision in Janus this summer.