By Shaun Richman
The Friedrichs vs. CTA Supreme Court case, a nakedly partisan assassination attempt on the labor movement, has died with Justice Antonin Scalia. What cannot die with it is the sense of existential crisis within the labor movement. We need a far-reaching conversation about the pathway back to increased activism, membership and power.
Like few moments before it, the Friedrichs case sparked a broad consensus within labor that our movement faced an existential crisis and that business as usual was a prescription for assisted suicide. Unfortunately, too many union leaders and staff based out of Washington, D.C. are now at risk of being dismissed as a bunch of Chicken Littles who overhyped a sky that never fell by the people who have the greatest ability to determine labor’s future: the local leaders and disengaged members.
It was a mistake to use the Friedrichs case to forge this somewhat rare agreement that labor faces an acute crisis. It seemed like a long shot that the Supremes would even take up the case just a few months after rejecting Justice Alito’s wet dream of a public sector “Right to Work” standard by a 5-4 margin in last session’s Harris vs. Quinn case (I lost a lot of bar bets when they did). Even with the case proceeding to oral arguments, there was always the possibility that the Court would punt on the issue or even rule in favor of the unions for political reasons or that one of these old farts would die and the case would deadlock.
But labor’s crisis predated Friedrichs and will live on after it. The “Right to Work” agenda, and the gutting of public sector collective bargaining laws, will continue to be pressed at the state level. And if the general financial commitment and philosophical approach to new union organizing remains the same, union density will surely continue to decline.
Fortunately, until the Friedrichs case gets re-argued or stalemates in a 4-4 decision, labor remains a bit like Schrödinger’s cat: simultaneously getting murdered by the judiciary and in the midst of a possible resurrection. So there’s still time to harness the sense of crisis into a renewed commitment to radical workplace democracy and activism. And the “rainy day” savings that many unions made in anticipation of an adverse decision can now be used as a “Scalia Dividend” to be invested in new campaigns.
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