Janus Comes with a Call for Renewal

Manderson      In a torrent of bad news from the Supreme Court, the much expected decision in Janus v. AFSCME eliminating union service fees for public sector workers arrived with a 5-4 thud on the doors of unions and their allies everywhere.  There is no way to pretend that the impact will not be devastating in the twenty plus states that allowed such fees to be collected.

The whole point was to deprive unions of financial resources that have been paid as service or agency fees in lieu of actual membership dues, and major public sector unions like AFSCME, SEIU, and CWA will see sharp declines in revenues no matter the huge efforts made to prepare for this decision.  This victory in the long war by the right to “defund the left,” as the project has been termed for decades, will impact more than just workers and their public sector workplaces.   There will be drastically less money for organizing programs to rebuild unions.  In the states that allowed agency fees as well as nationally there will also be fewer resources for other progressive initiatives and organizations that have depended on labor support and contributions.  The impact of this decision will be seismic.

Will it be catastrophic is another question entirely?  The labor movement has organized and won against the odds in right-to-work states without agency shop.  Look at the success of the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas.  Look at the recent surge of activity by teachers in Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Arizona – all right-to-work bastions.  This can be done in the United States though it takes solid, persistent organizing on a daily basis.

Globally such dues arrangements are largely unknown.   Prime Minister Thatcher removed any such arrangements more than two decades ago and even under subsequent Labor Party majorities, unions did not make a priority of restoring this level of union security.  Unions are still critical forces in the United Kingdom both at the workplace and increasingly in the community, but they rely on support from their members, and in fact do so increasingly without the benefit of even payroll deduction.

What the Janus decision must mean is an opportunity to rebuild labor unions with new organizing models.  This won’t be a discussion of the gig economy or using technology differently.  To regain members from fee-payers means a different level of involvement at the roots of the union with the rank-and-file.  There will have to be a democratization and reactivation at the membership level.  There will have to be more dependence on the membership for everything from organizing to political action.  Unions will have to fully become unions again rather than political institutions that represent workers.

Janus is not welcome because it speaks to the class and corporate animus that prevails in these gilded times, but that’s the challenge and opportunity forced on institutional labor now.  If we can rise to the task, we’ll all be better for it.

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Duplicate Dues Enrollment Should be Standard Operating Procedure

open-shop

UAW Billboard 1930s Detroit

Little Rock   Reading about the second battle of Wisconsin between labor and Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues, who four years ago stripped public workers’ unions in that state of the ability to collect agency fees or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues for representation, it seems they are making short work of getting rid of the same “union shop” provisions for private sector workers, adding Wisconsin to the list of “right to work” states.Unions are protesting loudly there, but seem resigned to the inevitability of defeat.   No doubt tipping Wisconsin will embolden other politicians waiting in line to
kick unions on their way down.

Labor is starting to piece together of chain of similar setbacks.  Last year home health care workers in Illinois, long members of our old sister local there, lost union shop provisions after an adverse US Supreme Court ruling.There has not been the immediate ripple effect that might have occasioned that reversal, but it is a sleeper bomb embedded in the memories of our opponents waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Over the last year visiting with union leaders and organizers in the United Kingdom, I sometimes found myself musing privately on the strategic and tactical thinking of labor in that country when they lost the union shop under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then never made regaining that system a key item when the Labor Party held the chair for long years under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.Victor Bussie, the former president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO for seemingly forever was the longest serving such officer at the state level in the labor movement and the only one dating back to the merger of the CIO and the AFL in the last 1950s.  In annual convention after convention when Bussie would stand for election, he would say he was committed to staying in office until he
was able to win back the union shop that was lost in 1976 when Louisiana became the last state to fall into that column.

It now seems to me that that maybe our brothers and sisters got it right in the UK.  Having weathered the storm, lost members, and survived, why jump back on that horse to see it race back and forth with each change of government when you are in a fight for the long haul.  Maybe even Brother Bussie also could have spent his time better?  Some union organizers in the UK even prefer the new system, including alternate non-employer based dues collection procedures in organizing a workforce no longer chained to the bench for life.

We may have simply lost the messaging battle on this campaign irrevocably.  As our membership percentage declines and unions are seen as a luxury benefit rather than a necessity for many on the job, then membership becomes more understandable as a voluntary choice than a mandatory obligation and the explanation for using management to help collect a union’s dues becomes a bridge too far for the public and even
for many workers.

Where we can get it, we should use it, but now that corporate and political forces are preparing as we see in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere to take the fight past right-to-work to eliminate the ability to use payroll deductions completely, we need to embrace the position of people like the GMB’s organizing director who argued to me that they preferred direct dues payments from individual’s bank accounts to payroll deductions.

In our union we are going to stop enrolling members unless they are signing two places on the card, one for payroll deduction and one for direct bank drafts.It is a herculean task and investment to re-sign everyone from one system to another, but it is a much simpler matter to enroll members in a different way from the beginning.  Once joining, it is a trivial matter for a new recruit to sign twice, because they have made the key decision once that they want to be in the union.

The tide is going out and it may never come back to shore.  Unions need to be careful not to be stranded on the beach all alone like Robinson Crusoe on their own private and deserted island.

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Woody Guthrie “Union Burying Ground”

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