Beware the Janus Fix That Relies Too Much on Bosses

Chris Brooks July 25, 2018

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case, in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan, June 27, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus deci­sion, a new approach to financ­ing unions called direct reim­burse­ment” is gain­ing trac­tion with Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cians, aca­d­e­mics, and even the New York Times edi­to­r­i­al board.

It boils down to this: Rather than pub­lic sec­tor work­ers pay­ing dues, their gov­ern­ment employ­er would pay an equiv­a­lent amount direct­ly to the union.

Pro­po­nents claim this approach will neu­tral­ize the impact of the Janus deci­sion and shore up union budgets.

The idea has legs. New York’s most senior Demo­c­ra­t­ic Assem­bly­man Richard Got­tfried is spon­sor­ing a bill to allow pub­lic sec­tor unions to nego­ti­ate this scheme into their con­tracts. Hawaii is enter­tain­ing a ver­sion too.

Backed into a cor­ner and fear­ful for the future, some unions might jump at this quick fix. It’s a big mistake.

Employ­er-spon­sored unions?

There’s a good rea­son why such an arrange­ment would be ille­gal in the pri­vate sec­tor. Fed­er­al labor law bars unions from receiv­ing employ­ers’ finan­cial support.

The point of that bar is to keep unions inde­pen­dent and out of the con­trol of the boss. Direct reim­burse­ment would make unions more vul­ner­a­ble to employ­er domination.

It is like a com­pa­ny union,” says Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner, a labor researcher at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. What the employ­er gives out, it can take it away.” 

Aaron Tang, the law pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Davis who dreamed up the idea, has a sim­ple rem­e­dy to pre­serve union inde­pen­dence — guar­an­tee the reim­burse­ments by law, and send any dis­putes to a third par­ty such as a state labor board. 

But giv­en the depth of employ­ers’ hos­til­i­ty, the fee­ble enforce­ment of exist­ing labor laws, the his­to­ry of com­pa­ny union­ism in the U.S. and the fact that state labor boards are often filled with polit­i­cal appointees (just look at the anti-union board stacked by Illi­nois Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner), Tang’s pro­pos­al is naïve.

It would also leave unions unpre­pared to col­lect dues in the event of repeal by a court or legislature.

Remove the workers”

A law like this would play right into the anti-union talk­ing point that a union is an out­side orga­ni­za­tion, imposed on work­ers from above. 

Tang’s pro­pos­al treats work­ers as the prob­lem, not the solu­tion. As he puts it, the pol­i­cy would work by remov­ing the work­ers from the equa­tion” of union fund­ing. Seriously?

A solu­tion” to Janus that leaves out work­ers will only rein­force the bad behav­iors that got us into this mess in the first place. Too many union lead­ers react to a weak posi­tion by look­ing for a tech­ni­cal fix or a way to part­ner up with the boss.

You can’t find a tech­ni­cal fix to an orga­niz­ing problem.

This idea is com­ing from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty because they are con­cerned about union mon­ey,” said Bron­fen­bren­ner, not about work­ers or build­ing work­er power.”

Many unions have lost the under­stand­ing that our fight starts in the work­place,” said Cher­rene Horazuk, pres­i­dent of AFSCME 3800 in Min­neapo­lis, who sup­port­ed a res­o­lu­tion at the union’s nation­al con­ven­tion oppos­ing the direct reim­burse­ment approach. If our mem­bers know we are fight­ing for and with them, they’ll know that it is in their inter­ests to be a part of their union.”

Let’s stop look­ing for short­cuts to sur­viv­ing Janus, and get down to the hard work of organizing.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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