Is SCOTUS's Harris v. Quinn Ruling on a New Version of the Infamous Dred Scott Decision?

The decision takes aim at public-sector workers because they are the leading source of employment for people of color and women.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Dred Scott by Louis Schultze, 1888

It’d be more than alarming and resoundingly condemned if any institution in the U.S. tried to take our country back to the days before Dred Scott, when people of color in this country fell under the racist and dehumanizing “three fifths rule.” But  the Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v Quinn smacks of a new three fifths rule by declaring the fastest growing occupation in the nation, an occupation dominated by people of color and women, as “partial” or “quasi” public employees.

The court’s rationale in Harris, that the workers that provide essential services to the frail and elderly, a population set to explode as the Baby Boom ages, aren’t “full” public employees is best understood in the context of two other seminal moments when U.S. law makers stacked the deck for employers and against people of color and women trying to improve their lot in life by forming strong unions.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act, NLRA, the law which created the architecture for workers to form unions, passed the U.S. Congress. But in order to win enough votes for passage, Roosevelt and the laws proponents compromised with racist southern elements who demanded that domestic and agricultural workers, the two occupations dominated by Blacks and women, would be excluded from the provisions of the NLRA, thus condemning people of color and women to a second class status under our nation’s first national labor law. Essentially, white men in factories were given the right to form strong unions while people of color and women were formally held back.

Between 1935 and 1947, industrial sector workers built powerful union, transforming bad jobs into middle-class work. The end of World War II brought the largest strike waves in U.S. history, as large numbers of returning veterans demanded dignity and basic rights in their workplaces after fighting for freedom abroad. From D Day to 1947, 5 million American workers went on strike, demanding and winning much of what we now wistfully remember as the American Dream.

In 1947, some of the same corporate backers of today’s Harris v Quinn decision delivered a knock-out blow to America’s workers when the U.S Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act, an act designed to to shackle, through jail time and fines, that growing strength in the US working class. The law systematically attacked two core constitutional freedoms of U.S. workers, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to speak.

A key provision included banning so-called secondary strikes, forbidding workers from honoring each other’s picket lines. But Taft-Hartley did much more than eliminate the individual’s freedom to act in support of your coworkers, neighbors, or family members seeking a better life; it also enabled individual states to adopt  so-called “right-to-work” laws, which bar workers from obligating coworkers to join a union or pay union dues even in workplaces where a large majority of workers vote to form a union.

All states which were previously slave-state strongholds quickly enacted the right-to-work framework, making sure Black workers in their states couldn’t build the kind of organizations that could challenge or significantly change a racist, Jim Crow regime in the workplace. By the end of 1947, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia were right-to-work, with the rest of the southern states to follow not long afterwards.

Harris v. Quinn takes aim at public-sector workers precisely because today they are the largest segment of unionized workers and, not coincidentally, a leading source of employment for people of color and women. The efforts of today’s economic elite—our “1 percent”—to do a Taft-Hartley on the fastest growing group of workers within public sector unions, homecare and childcare employees, seem like déjà vu all over again.

The extreme right wing and their big business backers have correctly set the U.S. government and unions together in the bulls’-eye. Meanwhile, liberals, who embrace the idea of government and denounce inequality in theory, are silent when it comes to supporting unions—or, worse, confused enough on what strong unions mean to equality that they, too, engage in anti-union banter—as unthinkingly as they curse the weather. It’s past time for Americans who are concerned about inequality to stop the endless bashing of unionized workers and begin examining more closely who is really to blame for the economic and social mess we find ourselves in.

Are unions perfect? Heck no. Do they sometimes do themselves a disservice by their own behavior? Of course. But unions once pulled working-class Americans out of the poverty and social stagnation so many are now experiencing again. The conservative elite are attacking public-sector unions for the same reason they once attacked private-sector ones and have always attacked government: because unions and government do narrow the gap; they both tend to promote equality. We, believers in the American dream, are at an all-hands-on-deck moment, and it’s time for the liberal elite to climb off the fence and side with America’s workers, and that means unions.

Jane McAlevey has been an organizer for 25 years. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. Her latest book is No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press).

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