Nonunion Workers Can Save Unions. We Just Need to Reimagine How We Collect Dues.

The case for voluntary payroll deductions to donate to unions.

Shaun Richman

Union members hold signs during a rally protesting against Janus V. AFSCME. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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. 

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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