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It should have been a moment of triumph. The writers at DNAinfo and the Gothamist network had voted to form a union. But a few days later, on Nov. 2, 2017, their sullen jerk of a CEO decided to fold operations in perfectly legal retaliation. Our peculiar labor relations system bases whether or not you are protected by a union contract on whether you can survive a campaign of threats, harassment and outright lies to prevail in a winner-take-all vote. Even then, a union contract can still be voided by a crybaby boss picking up his marbles and offshoring, subcontracting or “shutting down” operations entirely. A workers’ rights system that can be so baldly circumvented by billionaires and soulless corporations is clearly and inalterably broken.
Many of the best ideas currently on the table for labor law reform transcend workplace-based contract unionism. We could revive the New Deal model of wage boards, which dictate minimum standards for all companies in an industry. Even, or perhaps especially, if they are dominated by corporate interests, they would provide unions with a campaign target and all kinds of organizing opportunities to gain new associate or “at-large” members.
As I have advocated and Bill Fletcher proposes [in his essay “We Need Rights at Work Laws”], “just cause” measures like the one Keith Ellison is considering create an opportunity for unions and worker centers to offer tangible benefits to employees in nearly every workplace in America. Having expert advice and representation while contesting a boss’s write-up or termination is worth paying dues. Even the fair scheduling, paid sick days and assorted anti-discrimination laws that have proliferated in blue states and rebel cities in the Trump era represent opportunities to expand the ranks of union membership. The laws are a dead letter without an enforcement mechanism; enforcement should be the role of unions. These strategies are not meant to replace union contracts but to support, expand and enhance union standards across all workplaces.
The federal policy that would tie all of these reforms together and make them work as a union membership organizing strategy is a dues check-off law, voluntary for workers but mandatory for employers. Workers would be able to make voluntary paycheck contributions to any nonprofit of their choice — including unions. If they were getting enforcement help from a union, this would be a way of paying for the service. Other times, as when unions are waging battles for labor law reform, it would be more like throwing a few bucks at an advocacy group. Either way, for workers, it should be as simple as filling out a confidential form, or logging in to a website, to join or quit any time.
Voluntary contributions are very hard to maintain without access to payroll deductions. While I appreciate the romantic turn-of-the-20th-century history of Wobbly dues stamps and “walking delegates” hand-collecting voluntary union dues, modern experiences with alternative forms of dues collection have proven to be wheel-spinning exercises that can’t properly fund unions.
I spent years organizing with the United Teachers of New Orleans after all the teachers were fired in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. With no collective bargaining and little access to payroll deductions, we were asking union supporters to rejoin and pay their dues through credit cards or bank account debits. In our new age of inequality, even supposedly “middle class” teachers bounce checks and miss monthly credit card payments with distressing regularity. In a typical year, we would sign up 500 new members for a net gain of 100 new dues payers.
Any right-wing opposition to this bill would be laughable. Imagine the “right-to-work” and “forced unionism” dittoheads straining to argue that they should be allowed to make it more difficult for their employees to voluntarily pay dues to a union of their choosing. Oh, what an administrative burden for some back-office staffer at Paychex or ADP or one of the other small handful of companies to which basically every employer in America has subcontracted their payroll processing to tick a donation box! What a threat to democracy! Damn you, Nanny State!
Janus is an opportunity to break our understanding of “what a union is” into its component parts and decide what we want to keep and what requires change. Payroll deduction does not have to be limited to union shop contracts. Employees in every workplace in America deserve the immediate choice to join a union.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Shaun Richman is a labor expert at SUNY Empire State College and author of Tell The Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century.