L.A. workers rally to denounce Right to Work, appeal to Supreme Court
Eric A. Gordon/PW

LOS ANGELES—Several hundred workers massed on Monday, Feb. 26 in a militant rally to protest the billionaire-driven Janus case now before the United States Supreme Court. From the podium, leaders of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, urged attendees to take out their cell phones and send a message of resistance to the Court.

Unions are the last line of defense against rampant corporate greed. Silencing union workers would make it easier for the .01 percent to completely rig the system by driving down wages, privatizing public services, eliminating public and earned benefits, and avoiding both the cost of workplace protections and any concern for the environment. Reducing union power equates to reducing working people’s political power to counter the massive amounts of money for right-wing candidates unleashed by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case.

The Janus v. AFSCME case culminates a decades-long scheme by anti-worker groups to make it harder for unions to fight for good jobs and a voice at work by enacting so-called “Right to Work” laws nationwide. To view a short video outlining how RTW is a scheme by corporations, click here.

The rally was called for 11:30 am, but Michael Green, a master chant leader from SEIU, had the crowd going already by ten after eleven. A few of his choice calls and responses, accompanied by the rhythmic beat of a drum, included these ones:

Our union, our choice! Don’t let them take away our voice!

They got money, they got lies! We fight back, we organize!

Today’s the day we raise our fists! What do we do? Rise and Resist!

My people, we tell the story, we tell the whole damned world, this is union territory.

All the major unions were represented. The rally took place against the backdrop of the massive Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights, a couple of miles northeast of L.A.’s downtown business area. As L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, former Secretary of Labor in President Obama’s Cabinet, pointed out, this is one of the largest medical centers in the United States, and the single largest medical provider in Los Angeles. “This is why we are here,” she said. “Janus is an attack on all our workers. Not today and not ever!’

Saying Boyle Heights is “a union community,” one that he represents, L.A. City Councilmember José Huizar cited the heroic L.A. working class efforts at achieving a gradual raise to $15 an hour, and a living wage at hotels and LAX. The main thing about those landmark wins, he said, is that “we did it together.”

L.A. joined a list of hundreds of other cities this weekend showing solidarity for the union movement. Demonstrators showed up in hardhats, t-shirts and jackets, scrubs and overalls. Doctors from the medical center wore their white coats. One of them, an organizer of SEIU’s Committee of Interns and Residents, was Dr. Aslam Khan, resident pediatrician. “We take our position of ‘doing no harm’ very seriously,” he assured the crowd. Actions by the Trump Administration such as the ban on Muslims did America harm because Muslim doctors and other health care professionals were stopped at the border; ICE raids in the community made people afraid to come to County Hospital for their flu shots and other treatment—so everyone was made more vulnerable to illness. “This is not just about fighting back. It’s also about fighting forward.”

No one could miss the drone hovering over the assembly on this balmy, springlike day. Emcee Coral Itzcalli from SEIU explained it was a “fellow union worker” with a camera covering the rally. “We bring our own drones to the event.”

Karla Griego, a special ed teacher at the Buchanan Street School and member of United Teachers Los Angeles, was especially powerful, saying, “We will not be intimidated. They say labor is losing power, but I say labor is growing power.” She called on her listeners to think about the effect of Janus on every significant aspect of our lives—education, Black Lives Matter, immigration—and saluted the heroic united teachers of West Virginia now in their third day of an outlawed statewide strike that has shut down the schools. “No matter the outcome of the Janus case, like the miners, we workers shall not be moved.”

President Bob Schoonover of SEIU Local 721, the largest public-sector union in Southern California, also echoed the prospect of a majority of the nine Supreme Court justices siding with the boss class against America’s working people in Janus. At one time 30 percent of the nation’s workforce was unionized, and now, with around 10 percent, our standard of living has lowered—“shamefully,” he declared, “in the richest country in the world.”  “They don’t want you to make a good living,” he said. “It’s an attack on the entire middle class, which is shrinking.” But in the end, he concluded, “Even if they are successful at this, we are not going to let them win.”

A West Hollywood civil engineer and member of AFSCME, Don Uyeno, reminded the attendees that working people built our material infrastructure, they maintain it and keep it going 365 days a year. “No one is going to fool us,” he said, about limiting the power of all working people. “This is about the wealthy trying to push the working people backward.”

Pastor William Smart, head of the Southern California chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, preached that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis fifty years ago defending the rights of working people and specifically warned against the false slogan of “Right to Work.” MLK called it out, saying it meant “no rights and no work.” Smart vowed that “No ruling will rule us out.”

Ace Katano, a trial attorney in the L.A. public defenders office, made a moving speech, in which he said the lawyers there are just now organizing a union. Part of the reason is that a head of their office has just been appointed who has no trial experience and is wholly unqualified for the position. “I’m not just working to make a living, I’m working to make a difference.”

“They’ll never stop,” Katano said, “until each one of us is decertified, isolated and alone. They may have the government in their pocket, but we have each other.”

Currently, everyone covered by a union contract—and the fair wages, strong benefits and workplace protections that contract provides—pays a fair share fee, whether or not they’re an active union member. If the Supreme Court sides against workers in the Janus case, that fair share fee is eliminated and RTW will become law for all public-sector workers nationally.

Right to Work is really the right to lose, as workers in RTW states have average incomes some $1500 lower than in other states. They also are less likely to have health insurance, retirement savings, or to see their children off to college. And they are more likely to be injured on the job.

This device has its roots in the Jim Crow South. It was always meant to divide workers and weaken their power by destroying unions so that the ultra-rich could get even richer. The real goal of RTW laws is to strip workers of their collective power by encouraging them to opt out of paying their fair share, known as “freeriding,” which diminishes union membership and sticks those who remain with the cost of continuing to represent the “freeriders.” For a video on the subject see this.

Without union power, non-union workers too will suffer from unleashed corporate greed. A Robert Reich video on this can be viewed here.

All workers have benefited from workplace safety laws pioneered and institutionalized at the insistence of union workers across myriad industries, as well as child labor legislation, vacation and sick time, the 40-hour work week, and legislation preventing discrimination by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or veteran’s status. Unions have successfully fought for a $15 minimum wage, such as in California, and many believe this will eventually become the standard across America.

Whichever way the Supreme Court rules on the Janus case, working families and their community supporters will continue to choose union, to defend the American middle class and to stand strong in solidarity against a toxic mindset which rapaciously prioritizes profits over working people’s quality of life. It’s up to the union movement to make its case ever more strongly to win over the would-be “freeriders.”

As childcare worker and SEIU Local 99 member Tonia MacMillan said at Monday’s rally, “The corporate interests driving this case want to drive working people into a cycle of poverty.”

Later in the afternoon, following Monday’s oral arguments of Janus v. AFSCME and the National Day of Action in Los Angeles, Rusty Hicks, President of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, issued a statement saying:

“While anti-worker extremists are seeking to divide working people and the ability to have a voice on the job in the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case, we will continue doing what we have always done: organizing to build power for all working people. No court case, no legislation, and no propaganda campaign can stop us from standing together.”

“This fight matters because each one of you matters,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, at the rally. “Each one of your sacred stories. Our story matters.”

Source material from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.