Can Labor Still Use the Wagner Act?

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Dissent, Fall 2017

…. Eighty years after the Wagner Act’s validation, the triumph of collective bargaining in mass production industries seems as ancient as Exodus, and Cox’s optimism as quaint as greeting card poetry. Whereas the industrial Midwest once throbbed with demands for industrial democracy, today its depleted cities continue to bleed jobs and its hinterlands struggle with rampant opioid addiction. Flint, once home to a mobilized working class capable of taming General Motors, is today a desperately impoverished city lacking in decent jobs, whose residents continue to suffer from the aftermath of lead poisoning. Whereas sit-down strikers were protected by Governor Frank Murphy in 1937, today’s Michigan is a “right-to-work” state presided over by Governor Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist whose efforts to wrest local control away from distressed communities led directly to Flint’s poisoning. Little remains of the industrial union movement born in 1937, as private-sector union membership rates today dip toward 6 percent.

Nor is there reason to suppose the Supreme Court will help matters as it did eighty years ago. Today’s Court instead seems bent on interring the last legal vestiges of the New Deal labor order. In the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which the Court will decide in the coming term, the right of public-sector unions to collect “agency fees” from the workers they represent is being challenged. Opponents argue that government workers’ unions are merely political vehicles, and therefore granting them the right to collect agency fees infringes on the rights of workers who might not share the politics of the union that represents them. The case threatens to overturn a forty-year-old precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which recognized the unions’ rights to collect such fees in the interest of orderly workplace governance wherever state law allowed the practice…..