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Scalia’s death helped unions — until we join him

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death left many of his rulings up in the air. One case gives unions an unexpected reprieve, but the attacks on unions won’t stop. (Jim Mone/2015 AP)

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The overdue death of Antonin Scalia increased the chances that progressives Sandy Fewer, Kimberly Alvarenga and Hillary Ronen will win the Board of Supervisors.

How does a bigot judge’s moral turpitude-induced cardiac arrest in Texas elect three mothers in San Francisco? Here’s how:

In January, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v CTA. Observers believe Scalia was preparing a 5-4 decision this summer. The case addressed union dues for public employees. Currently, since unions are legally obligated to represent all workers covered by any given contract, people who don’t want to be voting members can still be required to contribute “agency fees” for representation. Everyone should pay for the representation they all enjoy by having a contract.

Friedrichs sought to overturn agency fees with a First Amendment argument, which was obviously phony. The Koch Brothers are libertarian kooks who funded the Friedrichs lawsuit just to weaken unions. There’s no billionaire ideology of hating climate change and loving free speech.

Scalia’s death throws Friedrichs up in the air, gives unions an unexpected reprieve, so they now can campaign for San Francisco supervisors without a sudden handicapping.

The Kochs want to destroy the labor movement because unions are the primary institutional backbone of American progressive politics. The right wing is not threatened by police unions busy defending bad apples. Nor is corporate America especially afraid of building trades unions that are willing to build concentration camps if the fascists agreed to a Project Labor Agreement and paid prevailing wage.

It’s the progressive unions, on most issues in San Francisco, who line up on one side with community groups facing so-called moderate unions with business interests on the other. The former has more people, the latter has more money, and the two expend vast resources every election to capture the last 10 percent of the electorate. There are many brilliant activists, but progressives win elections when activists and progressive unions align.

The progressive unions largely are public sector unions that would have taken a beating under Friedrichs. Public unions land on the left logically, as their strength is intertwined with the working-class communities that depend on services their members provide.

The stay of execution unions got from the death of Scalia is a stay — not amnesty. Corporate America will keep coming with more right-to-work laws, lawsuits like Friedrichs, pension reform, bans on strikes, open shops, limitations on bargaining and binding arbitration. There will be more Scott Walkers.

Those attacks will continue until they are successful and America becomes the Hunger Games — don’t know if you realized it was a metaphor — or unions become more inclusive, visionary, relevant to more people. Unfortunately, progressives see unions as an often-irritating coalition partner characterized by matching shirts and opaque acronyms rather than as a strategic ally necessary to victory. And justifiably so. Unions are often dysfunctional, inept, parochial, short-sighted, bureaucratic or corrupt in varying combinations.

Your mileage may vary, but you’re still joyriding a jalopy off a cliff.

Which is why, in this momentary respite from Friedrichs, I’d like to invite people from other social movements to take over unions. Amazing, visionary movements are being built by people involved with Black Lives Matter, gentrification, the DREAMers, climate change, prison reform, Bernie Sanders and the latest wave of feminism. It’s really not that hard to become a union leader. Many years ago, my wife went to one meeting of the clerical staff union at UCSF and was instantly moved into a decision-making role just by showing up.

Paradoxically, the labor movement is both a total mess and vital to progressive politics. And it needs a new generation.


Nato Green is a comedian and lifelong union activist.