Unionized workers filled a city block as they marched in downtown Pittsburgh Monday – the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a major case involving public sector unions.
First filed in Illinois, the case challenges a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that allows state and local governments to require public sector employees to pay partial union dues, even if they don’t join a union.
The idea is that, in unionized workplaces, all employees enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining.
The current case, however, challenges this reasoning as compelling individuals to fund union activity in violation of their right to free speech. It threatens to weaken an already struggling labor movement, with union membership long in decline.
Sam Williamson, the Western Pennsylvania Director for the 32BJ branch of the Service Employees International Union, counters that the 40-year-old policy is crucial to protecting labor at large.
“We know that the only way that workers move forward is and has always ever been to work together through our unions, to organize, to stand up and fight together,” he told a crowd at Mellon Square, which included nurses, firefighters, and service workers.
Pamela Rall-Johnston, Assistant District Leader for 32BJ SEIU, called the lawsuit an “attack on working-class people and [their] lifestyle.”
“Pittsburgh is a working town – it’s a union town. And for them to come in and cut our wages, cut our benefits – or open the door for that to happen – it’s going to affect the whole entire city,” Rall-Johnston said.
With the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year, experts say it’s likely a majority of justices will side with the non-union worker who originally brought the case.
At Monday’s rally, Mayor Bill Peduto declared that such a decision would not diminish union power in Pittsburgh.
“For anybody that works in the city of Pittsburgh, for anybody that has to negotiate with the city of Pittsburgh,” he said, “I don’t care what they say – you are going to be represented.”
Conor Lamb, the Democrat running in the March 13 special election to fill the vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, also spoke at the event, where he vowed to defend unions on Capitol Hill, if elected.
Organizers said the march in Pittsburgh was one of 300 such actions across the country Monday.