On Wednesday, June 27th 2018, the United States’ Supreme Court ruled in the case of Janus vs. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Of the nine Judges on the court, five ruled in favor of Mark Janus, 65, a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Janus argued that his right to free speech had been abridged, or taken away, because of the mandatory dues he paid to his union, AFSCME Local 31. Therefore, the the Supreme Court’s ruling, the collection of union dues will now need explicit consent from each employee in any public union, regardless of state law. Dues, or fees, to unions can be a complicated matter, and so it is important to clearly elucidate why and how they are collected.
Workers only pay union dues, generally, after a formally binding contract is signed and implemented by both the union and the employer. Union contracts protect workers’ pay, benefits, and rights at work (no arbitrary firings, mediation, union representation and access to gather information about working conditions). A contract is signed between, in the case of Janus, the local Illinois state employees’ union and the state of Illinois. The contract covers what is called the “bargaining unit.” A bargaining unit merely means the collection of all the workers covered under that contract. Everyone is represented, and because of a Supreme Court now overturned precedent from 1977, workers could choose to be fully paid members, or pay “fair share” dues, meaning they are not members of the union but they are recipients of the benefits of the bargaining unit and therefore pay an agency fee or union dues. In short, all workers under the contract are members of the bargaining unit, they all receive the same benefits from union representation, yet not all workers chose to be union members.
What I just described above is what twenty-two US states had as a general policy, guaranteeing union security agreements, whereby employees and employers can enter into a binding contract that includes the mandatory collection of union maintenance and representation fees. Because of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which sought to limit the power of labor unions, states have the right to ban union security agreements, these are erroneously called “right-to-work” states. Twenty-eight states have opted to ban these types of agreements, or contracts between workers and employers; meaning that in 28 US states, union contracts that include representation cannot govern the collection of dues, or fees from employees to their unions. This makes gathering resources, in the form of regular monthly payments from workers, difficult, and hurts the ability of unions to properly finance themselves.
My first union campaign began on January 7th, 2007 in Tucson, Arizona. Green as new tomato, I fell into the midst of county-wide unionization effort. Pima County public workers, from all sectors of local government, were organizing with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), assisted by the Texas-based SEIU Local 5 (Pima County now has its own independent union, SEIU Local 48). Because Arizona is a state that bans union security agreements, as described above, SEIU organized the most active workers into organizing committees, and those workers paid dues without a contract in place. In fact, because contractual agreements between public sector workers (government employees) are banned, even after a major victory vote, the union was only able to get a semi-binding ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ from the County’s Board of Supervisors. Public sector unions in these states, and now all now states, must go to each worker and get explicit consent to deduct union dues/fees from their paychecks, even if the worker is already benefiting from a contract. Although the Pima County union is making headway, as these Board positions are elected, and voter mobilizations, strikes, and media shaming sometimes creates a political force that can compel even the most conservative local governments to agree to workers demands. Teachers strikes this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona all demonstrated that public sector workers in states where post-Janus conditions exist, can organize the social and political will to make demands and win.
There are various laws in the United States governing union activity: one that broadly covered the rights of individual US states to become “right-to-work” states for their public sector workers (state, county and municipal employees), meaning that they ban union security agreements. Dramatically draining funds from unions, Janus will now deprive all these public sector unions – regardless of location – of the money needed to fight, win and organize better pay and working conditions (contributions to political campaigns are already voluntary). Federal employees’ unions exist in a “right-to-work” environment already, so they will not be affected by Janus. Private sector unions will (for now) continue to exist in the pre-Janus situation, muddling through laws that are geographically dependent, be they in states with a guaranteed right to collect dues automatically from anyone benefiting from a union agreement or in states where such agreements are banned.
Public sector unions need to revolutionize from within, and perhaps Janus is the wake-up call they needed. For too long many of these unions have neglected their members, cut back on “internal organizing” (assisting, motivating and mobilizing workers already unionized) in favor of “external organizing” (organizing those without unions), which is laudable because, over the past 40 years, the percentage of the population in a union has dramatically declined to the detriment of the working-class. However other forms of organizing have been remarkably reprehensible, such as the multiple inter-union attempts hostile take-overs of other unions. For example, AFSCME itself attempted to de-certify and take-over the Clerical Employees’ Union, which represented workers in the University of California system (a campaign I briefly worked on, before leaving the labor movement entirely in 2010). Pouring resources into fighting other unions should be an anathema to any union leader, and a complete cessation of all inter-union take-over campaigns is needed.
I only too clearly recall being ordered to bust a union organizing campaign by the Laborers at a nursing home in Oregon, so that SEIU Local 503 could maintain its agreement with the owners, Prestige/Pinnacle, with whom the union maintained an “exclusivity agreement” (the union had agreed to organize only one nursing home a year, Prestige/Pinnacle agreed to allow full access, and to bypass the National Labor Relations Board in favor of a simple card sign up process). Lastly, top union management salaries and expenses are often absurd and obscene, especially when the union is representing workers who are barely making it. Corrupt, venal union leaders must be removed, and a new wave of union leaders who no longer treat unions as their personal cash machines, and who respect union organizers’ rights, is needed.
Janus may, like the name implies, bring with it two very different faces: crisis and opportunity.
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