Johnnie Blake, a member of the United Auto Workers, went on strike in April 1983. Soon after the action began in Rockford, Ill., the employer replaced Blake and the other strikers. Meanwhile, the government also moved against her. When the strike began, the Blake household had included a teen-age son, a daughter, Charisse, and the daughter's baby. Since 1982 the daughter had been receiving food stamps. Afterward, the household was expanded when a state agency placed three grandsons of Mrs. Blake in her care, having taken them away from another daughter.
In June 1983 -- with the strike continuing -- Blake applied for food stamps for her three small grandsons. She was refused because she was on strike. The strike did not end until November 1984. Only then was the Blake household allowed food stamps for the grandchildren.
Johnnie Blake will have her case -- Lyng v. International Union, United Auto Workers, et al. -- argued before the Supreme Court next week. She is joined by three other union members, members of their households, the UAW and the United Mine Workers. They have already won in the District Court for the District of Columbia, where Judge Louis Oberdorfer struck down as unconstitutional the law that denies food stamps to families so long as one of their members is involved in a strike, an entirely lawful strike. (Those previously eligible for food stamps continue to get them, but few union members need stamps until they go out on strike.)
The law that sets strikers apart from everyone else was successfully proposed in 1981 by the Senate Agriculture Committee as an amendment to the Food Stamp Act. Congress, looking for ways to cut the budget, decided that money could be saved by prohibiting food stamps to any family with a union member on strike.
In November 1986 the district court found that this provision "interfered or threatened to interfere" with the First Amendment rights of the strikers to associate with their union and with fellow union members. Furthermore, the amendment interfered with the strikers' right to associate with their families.
Under the amendment, the court noted, leaving home is one of the few choices strikers have left to make it possible for their families to get food stamps. Of course, they also have the choices of "abandoning a strike by returning to work, quitting their jobs or attempting to persuade their unions to call off the strike."
The district court was particularly disturbed that the penalty is so all-encompassing. The striker, said the court, "sacrifices not only his own food stamps but also those of other members of his household, including infant children and the dependent elderly."
In urging the Supreme Court to overturn the district court's ruling that this amendment is unconstitutional, Charles Fried, the solicitor general, notes that the government is not interfering with the workers' rights of expression and association: "It simply refuses to fund the decision to strike."
In addition to saving money, Congress intended, says the solicitor general, to achieve "labor neutrality." Providing food stamps to strikers would be unfair to employers. Or, as the solicitor general puts it, "Congress chose not to discourage striking employees from reaching reasonable accommodations with their employers." If the folks at home are getting hungrier, an employee may well get to see the boss's point of view more rapidly.
The difficulty with the claim that the government is being evenhanded is in the actual effect of the amendment. Apart from strikers, food stamps can be denied to individuals who quit work by themselves or refuse suitable work, or commit fraud in applying for food stamps. But in those cases, food stamps are just cut off temporarily. Or they are decreased. Only with the strikers, as their lawyers point out, "does the act of a single household member indefinitely, completely . . . foreclose eligibility for the entire household." This is hardly equal protection of the laws.
As for the solicitor general's argument that the government is not required to subsidize expression or association protected by the First Amendment, the government is surely prohibited from refusing benefits solely because someone has exercised a constitutional right.
And for the government to make that refusal into a collective punishment, even unto babes in arms, is the kind of government "neutrality" in labor-management disputes that so brightened the Christmases of the working class for much of our history.