Speaking at Cornell Ghee’s funeral was one of the hardest things Omar Salaam ever did.
Ghee was one of Salaam’s early mentors when he came into the world of municipal sanitation as a young man from West Philly. Ghee was 15 years his senior, but in the years to come, Salaam would come to know him as a friend, a fitness buff, a semi-pro football player who, even well into his 40s, was showing colleagues half his age how to stay fit. He never smoked or drank. “He was one of the hardest workers I ever knew,” Salaam recalls.
Ghee died in 2015 shortly after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. At 53, he left behind two young adult children, including a daughter in her freshman year of college. While the cause of Ghee’s illness was medically inconclusive, Salaam, now 40, believes his friend’s departure from this world was hastened by the hazards of their job.
“Every year it’s somebody else,” Salaam says of ailing coworkers. “Cancer is rampant. We deal with toxic materials all day long. But when it comes up in discussions about trying to incorporate hazard pay, it often gets pushed to the side.”
Ghee was also among a group of longtime sanitation workers who encouraged a young Salaam to get active in their union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal, to fight for hard-won benefits like hazard pay. And Ghee is on Salaam’s mind in advance of the annual Working People’s Day of Action on Saturday, Feb. 24, which falls just days before the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a case that could deal a prostrating blow to their union’s power across the country.
Janus vs. AFSCME is widely considered one of the most consequential anti-union lawsuits in decades – especially for Pennsylvania, which is one of the 22 states and the District of Columbia that would be affected by the case. In these states, municipal workers who opt out of union representation are still required to make “fair-share” payments to the bargaining body, a solvency measure to prevent non-members from freeloading off of union perks derived in no small part from funds collected from dues-paying members.
A ruling in favor of Janus would allow public sector employees to opt out of paying even these reduced “fair-share” fees. The unions, meanwhile, would still be bound to represent union and non-union members – albeit without the financial support provided by fees. Going by national averages, union dues hover around 1 percent of a typical member’s income. While upper-bracket union members like police officers or firefighters may not feel the hit, labor officials predict that, given the option, many lower-earning members will increasingly opt out of the union and yet still enjoy the fruits of collective bargaining benefits.
“A loaf of bread is expensive,” says Bonnee Breese Bentum, a board member with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who has taught in the district for more than 16 years. “They’re going to choose to buy the loaf of bread versus paying the union – and that’s how simple it is.”
Advocates for unions say the erosion of dues-paying membership is the desired effect of those pushing the Janus case – anti-union groups like the National Right to Work Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The plaintiff’s argument – that unions’ fee systems are a First Amendment affront – has been heard before. A landmark 1977 case in the Supreme Court ruled public-sector labor peace takes precedence over an individual’s right to freedom of association. That case did, however, allow union members who disagreed with their group’s political messaging to request a partial refund. While dues do not directly finance union political operations, Janus-like cases filed around the country have argued that dues – even “fair-share” payments – amount to a First Amendment violation. In short, they say, dues mean guilt by association.
“With the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the Janus case, we are now one step closer to freeing over 5 million public-sector teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other employees from the injustice of being forced to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government,” Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, wrote in September.
The National Right to Work Foundation has backed similar cases in non-right-to-work states as well, including a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of teachers in Berks and Chester counties. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have been pushing right-to-work laws through Harrisburg that would also prohibit fees for non-union municipal workers, arguing that unions would have to better represent membership to retain enrollment.
For Philly teachers, Beese Bentum says the loss of even those fair-share fees would impact the PFT’s already storm-battered bargaining position. The teachers’ union endured four-and-a-half years without a contract – and five without a raise. The decline of working conditions during that time was extensively documented. “There are many teachers like myself who spend our own money to help other people’s children all the time,” Beese Bentum says.
Now, even organizations like Planned Parenthood are involved in the fight against the Janus case, saying that weakened public unions would hurt their own causes.
“We know the role that unions play in closing the pay gap, especially when it comes to women of color,” says Danitra Sherman, senior regional field director with Planned Parenthood’s regional advocacy arm and a speaker at Saturday’s rally.
On the Working People’s Day of Action, which begins at 10 a.m. at Thomas Paine Plaza, local labor unions will be joined by civil rights groups, faith-based organizations and anti-poverty activists. Fittingly, Salaam notes, the rally falls on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joining sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., in their strike for greater union protections.
Salaam will be flanked by his wife and two children as he marches with his fellow sanitation workers. He says he’ll be thinking of his old mentor and friend, the late Cornell Ghee.
“We understand that we’re not engineers from NASA,” Salaam says. “We’re not gonna make a huge amount of money. We’re just asking for a decent wage so we can live decent lives, send our kids to good schools and live in good neighborhoods.”