Why you should care

Because this is the stuff that makes up your 9-to-5.

Unions, Mark Mix tells me, are “necessary”; they “will be necessary.” They are American, constant. It’s a line you’d expect from a kid who grew up in a western New York union household, with a stepfather in manufacturing and a hardworking mother who slogged in school cafeterias. A guy who paid his way through college and registered as a Democrat.

Except that Mix is the voice of the right on labor: He’s the president of the National Right to Work organization, which objects vociferously to unions — specifically, the mandatory nature of unions. They figure a club is only a club if you have the choice whether to opt in. Labor has been a hot topic in the news for the past few years — think paid sick leave, Lean In and all other fervor over a rapidly changing workplace. Unions are one side of that die. And, contrary to frequently tossed-about intellectual prognosticating, “unions” — of which some 14 million Americans are still members — “are not dead,” says Benjamin Sachs, professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. Their future, in fact, is being hashed out now, in a lively manner, all across the country; the next months in particular, as a key case is heard by the Supreme Court, might determine whether unions really do live or die.

Mostly bald, bespectacled and lively-faced, Mix is a one-track work nerd. He lights up recounting his hand in other court battles that laid the foundation for this year’s happenings. In June 2014, with the case Harris v. Quinn, NRTW attorneys won something huge — they defined unions as political entities. Which means all union speech is political. And that means you can’t force it on anyone; the argument goes that you couldn’t, after all, make someone pay dues to a Donald Trump 2016 group in order to work at a certain company. “You never,” Mix quips, “have to prove that freedom’s a good thing.” But for all the Hayekian chitter-chatter, Mix is more earnest than soapboxy. You’d figure he’d have to be, to spend his whole life on a handful of legislation, potentials for precedent and legal quibblings, right?

Mix may be in a powerful position to sound the death knell for unions altogether.

One such legal quibbling about to change Mix’s game is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which SCOTUS is expected to hear this month. The question at play in that case, brought by Cali teacher Rebecca Friedrichs: Does making public sector employees pay union dues violate the First Amendment? Friedrichs is likely to kick such victories into high gear, says Catherine Fisk, professor of labor law at UC Irvine: It would allow Mix and Co. to begin fighting against private sector unions, not just government unions. And, Fisk adds, depending on 2016, if the court swings more to the right, Mix may be in a powerful position to sound the death knell for unions altogether.

Mix got his own start in the professional world as circulation editor of a newspaper, licking and cutting envelopes for distribution; he logged time in a grocery store too, but was never a union member. “I didn’t know any better,” he disclaims when he admits to his early days as a Democrat, amicably blaming his “extreme liberal” high school social studies teachers. But he got “away from the orbit of my hometown,” working in Virginia as a political field-worker and then traveling the U.S. doing right-to-work organizing; before that, he’d left New York only twice. Over four or five years, Mix saw the whole red-meat-and-potatoes, factory-to-C-suite splay of the country, including the Southwest’s Four Corners, Death Valley (where he spent the night at a rest stop) and the “bright lights of Vegas,” and he was officially an evangelist.

With a penchant for Dubya-style smooth explanations, Mix sells this as a clean-and-simple issue. But his fiery liberal opponents — like Stephen Lerner, fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative — ain’t goin’ nowhere. “For Mark Mix, right-to-work and their corporate overlords,” Lerner waxes furious about the possibility that NRTW could care about workers, “it’s equivalent to the sugar lobby saying they care about diabetes.” He throws some stats our way — one of them from a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute showing that wages in right-to-work states are about 3 percent lower than in other parts of the country. (Mix, in reply to the EPI study, says his critics use the wrong metrics to judge.) And, says University of Pennsylvania legal historian Sophia Lee, even Republicans aren’t all on Mix’s side — it’s a “tricky dynamic in the Republican party,” she warns.

Yet we wonder if the precise lack of pure partisanship on the issue could make this a Mix Moment. After all, the libertarians are coming, hungry and ambitious, from Rand Paul — one of the first of their ilk to be taken at least a little seriously — to Silicon Valley. And a little bit of talk about freedom, in these times, can go a long way.

Libby Coleman contributed reporting.

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