THE BLOG
07/04/2014 05:04 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2014

The Supreme Court's Crafty Minefield

Back in February in this space, I posed a question about the Harris v. Quinn case then before the Supreme Court. That question: Would a majority of justices side with hard-working women and men trying to strengthen their voice on the job through their union, or would they favor corporate interests determined to weaken that voice?

On Monday, we all got the answer and it came as no surprise to most of us in the trenches fighting for working people that the conservative majority sided with the latter. This is after all the same court that ruled in 2010's Citizens United that corporations are people.

In a 5-4 Harris v. Quinn decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court doubled down on its anti-worker, pro-corporate personhood agenda, ruling that home care providers who receive the benefits of a union bargaining fair wages on their behalf do not have to actually pay anything for that comprehensive, wage-boosting bargaining work by the union.

"Unfortunate," the Los Angeles Times editorial board branded the Harris ruling, underscoring the patent unfairness of such an arrangement. The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson rightly emphasized that home care providers affected by Harris v. Quinn are overwhelmingly female, minority, and poor.

Just minutes after undermining unions, the same 5-4 majority of the Court, again led by Justice Alito, dictated that craft megastore Hobby Lobby and other corporations are people with religious rights that trump the rights and health decisions of actual people: their female employees.

Taken together, Harris and Hobby Lobby were a maddening shot across the bow at women in this country. In his opinions, Justice Alito laid out with breadcrumbs the path for future, potentially devastating attacks on unions and women by groups like the National Right to Work Foundation, which pushed Harris all the way to his bench.

Because in 2014, that's who the five men who comprise the Court's conservative majority view as a threat to our nation needing to be tamped down under the weight of law: women. Particularly women who want to have a say in their workplace and with their own bodies.

It's worth noting that the Harris decision didn't deliver right-wing political extremists exactly what they were hoping for. The Court didn't revoke workers' longstanding right to collective bargaining. It didn't cancel anyone's contracts.

But it did single out home care providers and child care providers whom our union, AFSCME, represents. With our representation comes better care for clients, better working conditions, and fair compensation for arduous work. With Monday's ruling, the Post's Meyerson points out, comes a new reality. Home care providers are going to have a much harder time achieving any of those three things for the people they care for or themselves going forward.

It's easy to get frustrated to the point of total resignation after a one-two punch like the Harris and Hobby Lobby decisions. The politics driving these two cases, and their ultimate resolution, hit me hard as a proud unionist and a progressive woman. But resignation is not an option.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn't resigned. In her dissent on Hobby Lobby, Ginsburg decried her conservative colleagues' decision as leading the court "into a minefield." Hobby Lobby's owners wanted to "deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage," Ginsburg wrote. Put another way, a woman working as a Hobby Lobby clerk selling scrapbooking supplies to support her family shouldn't have to worry about her boss' religious beliefs while she's consulting with her doctor. (And certainly not when those same bosses invest $78 million with contraceptive manufacturers when it suits them.)

In the Harris dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wasn't resigned while talking about the importance of unions. She specified that the bargaining power that workers have through their union has raised wages, brought them much-needed health insurance and provided them better training to care for the elderly, people with disabilities and children. "The State, in return... has gotten a more stable workforce providing higher quality care," Kagan wrote.

Like Kagan, the women and men of AFSCME aren't resigned either and we're going to keep talking about how unions work for all Americans. We're organizing more than 50,000 new workers who know -- as our opponents do -- that in numbers, there is strength.

We're going to devote every day between now and the 2014 midterm elections talking in our communities about the need to elect candidates in every state who support working families. Because no matter what Justice Alito and his conservative colleagues might want, we've still got our collective voice and we intend to use it. We're going to knock on as many doors and ring as many phones as it takes to make sure that working people are paying attention to the divisive, extremist politics that begin in a city council chamber and lead ultimately to Supreme Court cases like Harris and Hobby Lobby.

Come November 4, shame on us if any worker in this country isn't paying attention and ready to join us. Because to paraphrase legendary Texas newspaperwoman Molly Ivins: If you're not completely appalled, you haven't been paying attention.

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