Embracing Janus and the New Year

In looking for appropriately seasonal clip art, I stumbled upon something I wasn’t looking for. Among the images of noisemakers and party hats and old men and babies, there were old engravings of a person with two faces, inscribed at the bottom “Janus.” If you’re reading this, you’ve probably also read previous articles about a Supreme Court Case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, that threatens (perhaps) the very existence of public sectors unions in the United States. I had known that Janus was also a Roman deity, portrayed with two faces. What I hadn’t known was Janus’ symbolic meaning. He was the god of transitional places—doorways, gates, boundaries, beginnings, the crossing from one place and time into another. In ancient Roman traditions, he was celebrated on New Year’s Day, January 1.

So for this New Year, I want to embrace Janus—both the court case and the symbol—as marking a transition for public sector unions as whole and for our Local in particular. This past year in Local 2822 has been one of change. I think those of us in official roles have learned a lot about how running a union works. We’ve learned a lot from each other. And we’ve also taken on so much. We’ve confronted bad bosses, we’ve taken action against discrimination and harassment, we’ve fought tooth and nail in investigations and grievances, and we’ve joined in the struggles of our communities.

The Supreme Court decision for Janus v. AFSCME will come out in 2018, and it will most likely not be ruled in our favor. In effect, “right-to-work,” which had been implemented on a state-by-state basis, would be nationwide. This means we might lose members and we will lose revenue from “fair-share” fee-payers. It will mean that no one will have to pay for the work of enforcing and negotiating our contract or organizing our workplaces to support one another. This is, to be a clear, a threat to organized labor. Some folks in the labor movement have had even more reactionary responses, saying that Janus will be the end of public sector unions in the United States.

But I don’t think this is what will happen, at least not for 2822. We know from AFSCME workers in Iowa that despite the stripping of union rights by their state legislature, Iowa’s public workers have been voting overwhelmingly to keep their unions. Private sector unions have always been subject to “right-to-work,” and yet I see new organizing efforts throughout the private sector, including in extremely precarious workplaces like Amazon.

Our unions will be strong if we remember who built them and who they represent: the workers. To be honest, unions throughout the United States have been weakened because they forgot this. Some unions tried to run on a business model, a fee-for-service. But our union isn’t a faceless machine providing services, no more than we are faceless County employees providing services. We are just workers, here to support and empower other workers. We are here to create a space where workers are no longer disempowered, but empowered. We are here to create a space where we have a voice. Sometimes it feels like the world is falling apart and there isn’t anything we can do to fix it. But we can. We can fix it in the places we do have power, where we do have a voice. And one of those places is here, in our union.

We are here on the threshold of the New Year, looking, like Janus, to both the past and the future. I don’t know the future holds, but I know that we will face it together.