It’s been a very good week for American labor, and such weeks don’t come along often. On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered a four-to-four split decision in the Friedrichs case, which would have decimated public-sector unions had the Court been able to produce a fifth vote for the plaintiffs. The saved-from-the-hangman’s-noose decision merely confirmed what everyone knew when Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died earlier this month: that the court no longer has a union-busting majority and isn’t likely to get one unless Barack Obama is succeeded by a Republican president.

Also on Monday, California Governor Jerry Brown announced he had reached a deal with the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, and with labor leaders, that would raise the state’s minimum wage, currently $10, to $15 by 2022 (or 2023 for businesses with fewer than 25 employees). If ratified by the legislature (where centrist Democrats in the Assembly may seek to weaken the proposal somewhat), California would become the first state to mandate so high a minimum. And size matters: California is home to one of every eight Americans, and the proposed raise would affect fully six million California workers.

And yet, both these notable victories underscore the limits on what unions can achieve in the current political economy. The victory at the Court was entirely defensive—swatting down what could have been a decision that would cause public-sector unions to lose hundreds of thousands of members. Should a Trump or a Cruz or a Ryan become the next president, and be able to appoint Scalia’s replacement, the next iteration of Friedrichs would surely become law. And even if Merrick Garland or future Democratic appointees shift the court towards a more pro-worker stance, that won’t stop Republican-controlled states from enacting the kind of right-to-work and anti-public-worker legislation that’s been adopted in recent years in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and West Virginia.
At the Court and in California, a Great Week for Labor