Schumer Floor Remarks on Janus v. AFSCME

November 1, 2017

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor regarding the Janus v. AFSCME court case:

Mr. President, labor unions and strong labor laws helped build the middle-class in America and protect the rights of workers for generations. In the 1970’s, union participation was around 30%, and it was a golden era for the American middle class. Wages went up. Families had benefits and vacations. Parents could pay for college and put food on the table and have money left over. The vast, thriving middle class in America was built on the blood and sweat of union labor and those who organized the labor unions, often at physical peril, back in the 30’s.

But over the past few decades, union membership has declined, and along with it, middle-class wages and opportunities. Since the 70’s, when union membership was near 30%, it has fallen to just 11% of all workers in 2014.

That decline is mostly because the union movement, and concurrently the middle-class with which it is aligned, has been under attack from the big corporate special interests and the conservative movement for the better part the last three decades. It’s well-funded by a small group of very rich, and I might say greedy, people, and it is patient. 

Their goal is to by any means necessary – via Congress, via the courts, whatever – to break up existing unions and prevent new unions from forming. They’ll pursue any avenue to disrupt the ability for workers to organize and collectively bargain for a fair share of the profits they create so that they can make an extra buck.

These forces will do whatever it takes to keep rigging the system in their favor – like asking the Supreme Court to rule on Janus v. AFSCME, a case backed by the Koch brothers, $40 million each, maybe more. Plenty of money, they hate giving money to workers. There is no record of evidence of a single lower court ruling in their favor. If anyone doubts the politicization of the Supreme Court, just look at them, they are willing to hear this case twice which comes with a crazy legal theory that a First Amendment basis can be used to destroy collective bargaining. It is merely designed to eliminate the freedom of people to come together in unions.

If the Supreme Court endorses the arguments of Janus, it will be a dark day for the American worker. Chief Justice Roberts – who said he would be fair and “call balls and strikes,” but in my view he has lost all pretense of fairness, he wants to keep the courts non-political but keeps pushing cases like this - has methodically moved the Court in a pro-corporate direction since his confirmation, constantly and consistently siding with big corporate interests over the interests of workers. Already, it is the most pro-corporate court since World War II. A decision in favor of Janus will be a shameful capstone on that already disgraceful record.

And I would say, to all those wealthy people who have plenty of money, to all those corporate executives who get paid in the tens of millions who are desperate to take away money from middle-class people whose incomes are declining, you are creating an anger and a sourness in America that is hurting our country in so many different ways. 

American workers deserve a better deal than that. And Democrats are going to offer it.

We are calling it the “Freedom to Negotiate.” We’re offering the middle class and those struggling to get there a better deal by taking on companies that undermine unions, underpay their workers, and beginning to unwind a rigged system that threatens every worker’s freedom to negotiate with their employer.

Our plan would, among other things: strengthen penalties on predatory corporations that violate workers’ rights; ban state “right to work” laws that undermine worker freedoms to join together and negotiate; strengthen workers’ right to strike for essential workplace improvements; and provide millions of public employees—state, local, and federal—with the freedom to join a union and collectively bargain with their employers.

Over the past century, labor unions have fought to stitch into the fabric of our economy a basic sense of fairness for workers. Each worker, left on his or her own, has no power against big, corporate interests who employ them. But together unions can, and when workers unite together in unions, they can have some say. No one taught me better about the lack of fairness than a 32BJ worker I met at JFK several years ago named Shareeka Elliot. When I first met Shareeka, she was the young mother of two children, struggling to make ends meet. She was working the graveyard shift cleaning terminals at JFK and serving hamburgers at McDonald's during the day.

Still, she was forced to rely on public assistance – she had got so little in wages from these jobs - and lived in a house with six other family members to pay the rent. This was not a freeloader, she was working two jobs. But she got minimum wage and could hardly support herself. She barely saw her children and spent most of her free time to get this job, this poorly paid minimum wage job, she had to take a bus for two hours from East New York to Kennedy airport. She wasn’t angry by the way, she was a churchgoing lady, she had faith in God to provide. But she suffered so.

And by the way, 30 years ago cleaning bathrooms at an airport, you would have been employed by the airlines or by the terminal. But because these companies have learned to farm out the labor to subsidiaries, to franchises, to other corporations who have no accountability, and now cleaning those toilets is a minimum wage job. But over the last four years, I have seen Shareeka and her co-workers start to rebuild their dreams. She said to me ‘Senator, if only I could get minimum wage I might be able to take my kids out to a restaurant. I never could. Or buy them toys for Christmas, I never could do that.’

But now, Shareeka joined a union and fought for a $15 minimum wage. In some parts of the country, that may seem like a lot of money but in New York City, I can tell you, it doesn’t go that far because costs are higher. Shareeka was able to quit her second job to spend more time with her daughters, like all parents want to do. When Shareeka and her coworkers won a union contract, they were able to gain the tools they needed to protect themselves and do their work in a safer environment.

So Shareeka is a metaphor for American workers, so many of whom have lost good-paying jobs that have gone overseas, that have been closed due to automation. When they organize in these new types of jobs, they can get the kinds of wages people used to get in the jobs that have gone away. 

It’s pretty simple: when workers have the freedom to negotiate with their employers, they have safer working conditions, better wages, and fairer overtime and leave policies. Shareeka’s story is a testament to that fact.

Our Better Deal, the Freedom to Negotiate, will do for so many Americans what Shareeka’s union did for her in New York. It will turn things around for our country. Maybe middle-class wages will start going up. Maybe people will start having faith in the future again. And we Democrats, hopefully maybe joined by a few courageous Republicans, are going to fight to get it done.