This month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that threatens to severely weaken the collective bargaining power of America’s unions.
This is not a column about the merits and demerits of public-employee unions. Rather, I want to discuss something else: how essential unions are for American minorities, and how attacks on public-employee unions represent an extension of the numerous attacks upon minorities engulfing America.
Unions have consistently provided a pathway into the middle class for American minorities. Championing unions formed an integral part of the civil rights movement in 1960s.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights leaders linked social justice to the strength of labor unions to provide minorities with employment opportunities and a livable wage. Public-sector jobs have historically provided employment opportunities for African Americans before the private sector did, and the employment opportunities created within them provided the black community with job opportunities that never existed before.
These unions also brought new protections to valued professionals within the black community, notably teachers. From Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond, teaching was especially important, given that white educators simply wouldn’t teach black children in many parts of the country. Many of our best and brightest have flocked to this profession.
Today, jobs in the public sector unions that are threatened by Janus provide the single greatest employment opportunity for African Americans. Nearly 20 percent of African American adults work for the government in positions including teacher, child welfare services, mailman and everything in between. African Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to have a public sector job.
Here’s what Janus is about. The argument is as absurd as it is dangerous. Mark Janus, a white male, works for the Illinois state government and does not believe that he should be required to pay dues to AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Council 31 that represents Illinois state workers. He’s arguing that paying dues represents a violation of his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment bans compelled speech, which includes being forced to make political contributions.