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.
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 labor journalist and organizer. He currently works as the field director at the NewsGuild of New York.