There are some goals parties pursue as ends in themselves; for example, Democrats would like to arrest climate change because they worry about the fate of the planet. Then there are goals parties pursue because they will be politically beneficial; for example, Republicans want to make it hard for African-Americans to vote mostly because that will result in the election of more Republicans.

Then there are goals that do both. A prime example is the GOP’s comprehensive and spectacularly well-funded war on unions.

Republicans sincerely believe that when workers are able to join together to bargain collectively and seize some measure of power in the workplace, it’s an inherently bad thing. But even more importantly, they know that since unions are one of the Democratic Party’s key sources of funding and organizing, if they can be destroyed then it means Democrats will be weaker in every election.

And today, the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court gave the GOP a huge victory in that effort:

Conservatives on the Supreme Court said Wednesday that it was unconstitutional to allow public employee unions to require collective bargaining fees from workers who choose not to join the union, a major blow for the U.S. labor movement.
The court in a 5-to-4 decision overturned a 40-year-old precedent and said that compelling such fees was a violation of workers’ free speech rights. The rule could force the workers to give financial support to public policy positions they oppose, the court said. […]
It was a devastating, if not unexpected, loss for public employee unions, the most vital component of organized labor and a major player in Democratic Party politics. It capped a years-long effort by conservative legal activists to forbid states from authorizing the fees.

This is a critical decision because public sector unions have become one of the last bastions of union power. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from earlier this year, while only 6.5 percent of private sector workers belong to a union, 34.4 percent of public sector workers do (the total for all workers is 10.7 percent). Conservatives have largely succeeded in destroying private sector unions, and if they can do the same to the public sector unions, their war will be won.

The first and most important thing to know about this case is that what was at issue here wasn’t unions’ political activities. This was about “agency fees,” which are sometimes charged to all workers in a unionized workplace, regardless of whether they belong to the union. Non-union workers are already able to opt out of paying for not only political activities the union might engage in, but organizing as well. The only thing they had been required to contribute to was the collective bargaining that they benefit from.

Labor’s argument is that people shouldn’t be able to free-ride, enjoying the higher wages and better benefits the union negotiates for on their behalf, without contributing to the cost of obtaining those wages and benefits.

And that is precisely the goal of the conservatives who sought this outcome. What they have done is create a situation where everybody can get something for nothing, expecting the union to bargain on their behalf without any contribution from them. The result is that the union will have less and less money to do its work, and could eventually collapse.

Now let’s consider the context. One of the ironies in President Trump’s promise to roll back the clock to a time when white men could go straight from high school to a secure and well-paying job in a factory or mine is that those secure and well-paying jobs were brought to you by unions (along with the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, and much more). The period in American history when growth was fastest and gains were being most widely shared, the 1950s and 1960s, was also the time when unions were at their strongest, with around a third of American workers represented.

But they’ve been in decline ever since, particularly since the 1980s. There are multiple reasons why, but one of the critical ones is a concerted effort on the part of wealthy Republican funders to undermine them through state laws that can then be validated by the Supreme Court. The final and complete destruction of collective bargaining in America has been a key goal of the Koch brothers, one to which they have devoted millions of dollars in recent years. It’s no accident that when Koch-funded Republicans like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin get into office, one of their first priorities is to pass bills to undercut their state’s public sector unions.

And it works: According to one study, passing a right-to-work law reduces Democratic vote share by 3.5 points.

Again, the ideological and political components are intertwined. The Kochs are happy when workers have fewer rights, and they know that weaker unions won’t be as capable of helping Democrats get elected. But they also know that unions do something critical: They take the individual circumstances of people’s work lives and broaden them until they become political.

When they organize workers, unions tell them that your problem isn’t just that your boss is a jerk. There’s something deeper at work, a structure of relationships that makes sure that your jerk of a boss has all the power and you have none. The answer isn’t to get rid of that boss, it’s to change the structure.

When you broaden people’s views that way, the personal eventually becomes political. Their view rises beyond their boss, to the way people like them get treated, to a political system that works to reinforce their powerlessness — especially when Republicans are in charge. They see that when a Republican president gets elected and starts cutting worker safety regulations, stocking the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union activists, and appointing Supreme Court justices who vote to cut unions off at the knees, maybe those Republicans don’t really have their interests at heart no matter how much they pretend to love country music and hate pointy-headed elitists.

That’s the biggest danger unions pose to the Republican Party and the plutocrats who fund it, and it’s why the war on unions is such a high priority for them. The bad news is, they’re winning.

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