How Unions Are Preparing for the Threat of Right To Work in the Public Sector

Samantha Winslow June 30, 2015

(Jobs With Justice/ Flickr)

This post first appeared at Labor Notes

In late June the Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a law­suit, Friedrichs v. Cal­i­for­nia Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, that could make the whole pub­lic sec­tor right to work.” The court would deter­mine whether pub­lic sec­tor unions could con­tin­ue to col­lect so-called fair share” or agency” fees.

If CTA los­es, pub­lic employ­ees across the coun­try could opt out of mem­ber­ship and pay noth­ing for the union pro­tec­tions they enjoy. Union bud­gets —and strength — would be fur­ther dimin­ished. Pub­lic sec­tor unions are play­ing defense. They need a plan to con­vince employ­ees to join (or stay in) the union. But they’re oper­at­ing in a dif­fi­cult ter­rain, after years of cuts and con­ces­sions. There’s been a loss of con­fi­dence,” said Vice Pres­i­dent Daniel Barn­hart of Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les. When you are in a crouch, it’s hard­er for peo­ple to see a fight­ing union.”

Mem­ber­ship drives

To pre­pare for the worst, the big pub­lic sec­tor unions are set­ting out to bol­ster their mem­ber­ship num­bers. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, AFSCME, and Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) nation­al­ly are doing large dri­ves to con­vert fee-pay­ers to members.

Will that be enough to con­vince union skep­tics to stay mem­bers for the long haul?

In an agency shop, it’s often pos­si­ble to make a prag­mat­ic pitch for peo­ple to join the union: You’re already pay­ing most of the cost of dues any­way. Pay just a lit­tle more, and you can be a full, vot­ing member.

But sign­ing up union mem­bers could get a lot hard­er if the alter­na­tive is a free ride.

The ele­phant in the room is that plen­ty of rep­re­sent­ed work­ers aren’t enthu­si­as­tic about their unions. Some see them as the con­tract, pure and sim­ple — an insur­ance pol­i­cy at best, not some­thing that gets your blood mov­ing. Oth­ers have the oppo­site gripe — that their unions focus on advo­cat­ing for caus­es far removed from mem­bers’ day-to-day work.

Either way, too few unions are engag­ing mem­bers in the kinds of fights that gen­er­ate pas­sion­ate union­ists — and few­er still have mem­bers in the dri­vers seat, shap­ing their own programs.

If right to work hap­pened, it would def­i­nite­ly be dev­as­tat­ing. A lot of unions would take a hit,” said SEIU Local 1021 exec­u­tive board mem­ber Ram­ses Teon-Nichols. Not only a finan­cial hit, but also a morale hit by hav­ing mem­ber­ship go down.”

Since Wisconsin’s 2010 pub­lic sec­tor right-to-work law (it also barred dues deduc­tion and lim­it­ed the scope of nego­ti­a­tions), AFSCME has lost two-thirds per­cent of its mem­bers — drop­ping from over 60,000 to 20,000. The Wis­con­sin Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion Coun­cil has lost 30 percent.

Law­suits galore

In Cal­i­for­nia, where this court case orig­i­nates, the threat isn’t new. Con­ser­v­a­tives there have tried for two decades to strip unions of dues deduc­tion and fair share through bal­lot initiatives.

But what anti-union forces couldn’t win at the bal­lot box, they might get through courts.

The Cal­i­for­nia Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, named in the Friedrichs case — the larg­er of two statewide edu­ca­tion unions — is also fac­ing a law­suit that threat­ens to end teacher tenure.

Ver­gara v. Cal­i­for­nia was filed and fund­ed by Stu­dents Mat­ter, a front group for Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neur mil­lion­aire David Welch. The union is appeal­ing a state judge’s rul­ing that teacher job secu­ri­ty inter­feres with stu­dents’ rights to equal education.

It’s all part of the same game,” said CTA Pres­i­dent-elect Eric Heins. It’s get­ting unions out of the way, because we are one of the few orga­ni­za­tions to stop [con­ser­v­a­tives’] agenda.”

In the 325,000-strong CTA, rough­ly 1 in 10 rep­re­sent­ed work­ers is a fee-payer.

To pre­pare for the attacks, last year the union rolled out a plan to build an orga­niz­ing cul­ture in its locals. This means con­nect­ing with mem­bers and non-mem­bers about issues that mat­ter to edu­ca­tors, like the Com­mon Core cur­ricu­lum standards.

It’s not just about col­lect­ing dues,” Heins says, and it’s not just about the bread-and-but­ter issues.” After all, if you just sign them up with­out con­nect­ing, it’s just as easy to unsign.”

Rebuild the union

At Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les, the largest CTA affil­i­ate, union lead­ers are look­ing down the road.

It’s not a secret that we’ve been in decline, with the loss of [stu­dent] enroll­ment and loss of mem­ber­ship,” said Vice Pres­i­dent Daniel Barn­hart. The union spent years in hiber­na­tion and weath­ered a slow climb out of the recession.

Yet after mem­bers elect­ed a reform admin­is­tra­tion to head the union last year, UTLA drew fresh rank-and-file ener­gy into its con­tract cam­paign, cul­mi­nat­ing in a 15,000-person ral­ly down­town. The union won a new agree­ment in April that fea­tures its first-ever lan­guage on class size.

The way to sur­vive a poten­tial Friedrichs set­back is the same as what’s need­ed to win a con­tract cam­paign,” Barn­hart says.

The new lead­ers have tak­en a sys­tem­at­ic approach to strength­en­ing UTLA. The steps are famil­iar to any orga­niz­er: Com­pile an up-to-date list. Iden­ti­fy lead­ers in each work area. Train them to talk with co-work­ers about get­ting involved.

We take lessons from our own past. We didn’t always have agency fee,” Barn­hart said — just since 1992. Our fore­moth­ers and fathers who built this union didn’t have it.”

Stronger togeth­er

SEIU, which has a mil­lion mem­bers in the pub­lic sec­tor, is also grap­pling to pre­pare for the worst. It’s tout­ed home care orga­niz­ing vic­to­ries as its biggest growth area — but it already lost fair share in that sec­tor in last year’s Supreme Court rul­ing, Har­ris v. Quinn.

This is a union that’s shift­ed much of its spend­ing away from rep­re­sen­ta­tion to fund new orga­niz­ing, the Fight for 15, and its cam­paign for immi­gra­tion reform. Now it has to make the case for those pri­or­i­ties to members.

Nation­al­ly, SEIU has set a goal of sign­ing up 185,000 new pub­lic sec­tor mem­bers, includ­ing 100,000 in home care.

To keep the union rel­e­vant, SEIU 1021, a merged pub­lic sec­tor local in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is pri­or­i­tiz­ing cam­paigns to raise the min­i­mum wage, along­side strength­en­ing the union in work­sites, said Teon-Nichols.

Since elect­ing reform-mind­ed lead­ers in 2010, Local 1021 has focused on what it calls chap­ter rebuilds.

We put tremen­dous effort into shops, to rebuild stew­ards coun­cils, chap­ters, and struc­tures,” Teon-Nichols said. We are real­ly start­ing to devel­op more of an orga­niz­ing mod­el. We see that there is more val­ue in hav­ing peo­ple orga­niz­ing themselves.”

Teon-Nichols added that the inspir­ing Fight for 15 has helped ener­gize some of the union’s activists — so much so, that he sees it as essen­tial to the union’s inter­nal orga­niz­ing efforts.

It’s rel­e­vant even for mem­bers who already make more than $15, he points out. After all, high­er wages put mon­ey back into the econ­o­my, rais­ing rev­enue for the pub­lic sector.

Bad boss = organizer

In Illi­nois, AFSCME Coun­cil 31’s fight against bil­lion­aire Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner is help­ing the union gear up for the pos­si­ble loss of fair share nationally.

Thus far, work­ing in coali­tion, AFSCME, SEIU Health­care Illi­nois, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, and oth­er pub­lic unions togeth­er have so far beat­en back Rauner’s attempts to pass right to work and elim­i­nate fair share on the state lev­el. Pub­lic work­ers have also so far pro­tect­ed their pensions.

Now, Coun­cil 31’s state work­ers are in tough con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, where Rauner is demand­ing a wage freeze and ben­e­fit cuts. The coun­cil fears he’s try­ing to push them to strike.

In fact, Rauner’s attack on Illinois’s fair share law has helped the union sign up new mem­bers, said Coun­cil 31 Deputy Direc­tor Mike New­man — because work­ers can see how the governor’s attempts to weak­en the union go hand in hand with his demands for concessions.

AFSCME has a rep­u­ta­tion for focus­ing on tra­di­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, closed-door bar­gain­ing, and leg­isla­tive maneu­ver­ing. But two years ago, Coun­cil 31 built to a cred­i­ble strike threat against a Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor through old-fash­ioned union-build­ing: chart­ing out work­places, assess­ing mem­bers’ readiness.

The coun­cil uses AFSCME’s mod­el of Mem­ber Action Teams to orga­nize in work­sites. The goal is to have one MAT leader for every 10 work­ers. Besides sign­ing up fair share mem­bers, they do day-to-day check ins and turn out co-work­ers for events.

AFSCME too has big home care bar­gain­ing units. Fear­ing the court would take away fair share from home care mem­bers — or worse, all pub­lic sec­tor work­ers — last year, AFSCME set nation­al goals for locals: sign up 30 per­cent of fee-payers.

What we are doing is con­sis­tent with [AFSCME’s] goals,” said New­man. But there’s an inten­si­ty here that is prob­a­bly not at the same lev­el with most parts of the country.”

Recom­mit­ment drive

AFSCME Local 3299 Pres­i­dent Kathryn Lybarg­er, too, sees Mem­ber Action Teams as crit­i­cal to prepar­ing for the ruling.

Her 20,000-member local led a 2013 fight against con­ces­sions, with mul­ti­ple strikes at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia cam­pus­es and affil­i­at­ed hospitals.

Before the con­tract fight, Local 3299 built up 500 mem­ber action teams statewide.

It’s those MAT lead­ers who make the union strong. They are dri­ving the work­place fights, defense of the con­tract, and iden­ti­fy­ing oth­er lead­ers of the union,” Lybarg­er said. They’re also tasked with sign­ing up non-members.

Lybarg­er cred­its AFSCME’s nation­al lead­ers for rec­og­niz­ing that unions need to invite mem­bers to join a big­ger strug­gle on issues they care about — not just pay into the union like an insur­ance plan.

So the local is gear­ing up for a mem­ber recom­mit­ment dri­ve,” like an orga­niz­ing dri­ve when work­ers first join the union by sign­ing a card.

Whether a new mem­ber or cur­rent mem­ber,” Lybarg­er said, Every­one is going to sign a com­mit­ment card… Com­mit to this because your pen­sion is on the ropes, or the boss is com­ing for your job.

What­ev­er hap­pens — with UC or the Supreme Court — we are build­ing a struc­ture that will hold fast through the attacks.”

Saman­tha Winslow writes for Labor Notes.
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