Janus for the Rails and Air?

The effect of an anti-union decision in the case of Rizzo-Rupon could mirror what last summer’s Janus case did to the public sector, except for railroad and airline workers. Photo: Loco Steve, CC BY-SA 2.0

They did it to public workers. Next they want to do it to railroad and airline workers.

A right-wing policy think tank filed a Janus-style lawsuit against the Machinists on January 8, claiming that non-members shouldn’t be required to pay fees for union representation.

The plaintiffs are customer service agents at United Airlines. They’re covered by the Railway Labor Act, which governs unionization and collective bargaining for hundreds of thousands of union members who work for railways or airlines—from flight attendants to freight train engineers.

The effect of an anti-union decision in the case of Rizzo-Rupon could mirror what last summer’s Janus case did to the public sector.

Unions would still be required to represent everyone within a unionized workplace, but members could opt out of paying dues or fees. Railroads and airlines would effectively be “right to work.”

The lawsuit was filed by the notorious Mackinac Center, which also set up a post-Janus hotline to convince public employees to opt out of their unions. Its list of funders is a who’s who of ruling-class ghouls with names like DeVos, Koch, and Walton.

Rizzo-Rupon is only the most recent attempt to gut union strength under the RLA. In 2017 the Supreme Court refused to hear Serna v. TWU, a similar case brought by the National Right to Work Foundation.



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Since then, however, two new right-wing justices have joined the Court, and the Janus case has signaled that long-established rights are up for grabs.


Whether it comes through Rizzo-Rupon or another case, the right-to-work threat to rails and air is real.

The clique of wealthy people who want to undermine union power got their taste with Janus, and they want more. They’ve got plans—and we should make some, too.

Our plans will require more than high-powered lawyers and deep pockets. Luckily, some unionists have already gotten a head start.

For the Labor Notes special issue Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America, we talked to workers in right-to-work states and sectors from across the country. In spite of serious employer and legal opposition, many of them have managed to build their unions even stronger than they were before.

Your best tactic, they told us, is to fight from the bottom up: talk to your co-workers, build workplace power, fight to improve conditions, and make your union the type of organization that members want to be part of, whether the law requires it or not.

Read Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America: A Labor Notes Guide here. You can even order 50-100 copies to pass out at your next local meeting or stewards training, as many unions have done.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.