Public Unions are Adjusting Their Strategies around Strikes and Checkoff

New Orleans    Public employee unions are trying to recalibrate to find a future, and there’s hope, no matter the naysayers.

Case in point of course has to be the success of the West Virginia teachers and their strike that continues to galvanize the labor movement and give courage and conviction to other unions elsewhere.  Their strike, as is well known now, not only won a 5% immediate raise in the face of a measly offer of 1% per year for several years from the negotiators and the tight-fisted state legislature, but also led to their successful demand to get the same raise for state employees in West Virginia.

Other teacher unions in states that have traditionally be very, very hard on their public employees have done their homework and studied the lessons overtime.  A teacher in Oklahoma started a Facebook page calling for a strike and picked up more than 70,000 members, quickly forcing the Oklahoma state legislature to pass the first tax hike in 28 years to offer an across the board increase of $6000.  Teacher unions are saying, that’s good, but not good enough.  30,000 are expected to rally in Oklahoma City to demand a $10,000 raise over two years to catchup.  Some Kentucky teachers waged a sickout as their demands increased.  North Carolina teachers are reportedly also debating a strike.  The message that far right, conservative, starve-the-government legislators may be starting to get is that they have gone too far and that not only are teachers and other public employees unwilling to take it, but increasingly they are confident that both their own members and the public supports their job actions.

Republicans are still hoping that the pending decision before the Supreme Court in Janus vs. AFSCME will cripple public employee unions in some of the large states that have allowed agency fee payments from nonmembers.  There are signs that unions are making headway in converting agency fee payers to members and in other states where payroll deductions for any and all public employees are threatened, they are increasingly converting to other means of dues payments.  Many unions are carefully examining the program of Unite, the largest union in the United Kingdom, and it’s 100% campaign which has enrolled almost 100,000 members in recent years.  Talking to a key organizing department official recently from a US-based union, I was told one of the central lessons being learned was to start with your best units to achieve these results in order to set the pattern for your underperforming branches.

Unions working in California, New York, and other states allowing agency-fee payments are not sitting on their hands and crying in their beer.  Many are reporting success in transferring fee payers to members at relatively high levels.  In other states like Texas, where checkoff is threatened, unions have been able to move between 15% to over 50% of their members to alternative payment systems even though losing checkoff may be more than a year away.  Some unions have adopted the strategy of some UK and EU unions of only signing people up on standing orders or bank drafts and avoiding payroll deductions entirely.

There will be pain in the transition, but hard work and renewed activism may allow the labor movement to emerge stronger in the future than our current weakness has lead opponents to expect.  A critical insight for many unions may be one my friend argued when she said that her union had made the decision that it was no longer worth spending time and money fighting for dues programs rather than core membership issues.  In fact, fighting harder on the real issues for workers will likely lead to a surge in membership.  Anti-union forces may learn that they should have been more careful about what they hoped for, as workers wake up the sleeping giants within their own organizations.


More Worker Protections Still Require More Worker Representation

Toronto    Continuing to look at the extensive labor protections workers gained thanks to demands and lobbying of unions in Ontario and, surprisingly, the Liberal government, is nothing short of amazing.  Digging deeper after hearing of the recent success from John Cartwright, president of the Toronto – York Labour Council, I found the following goodies for workers in new law:

— Casual, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees will be given the same pay as full-time employees for doing equal work. There are exemptions based on seniority and merit.

— Once an employee works for a company for five years, they will be entitled to three weeks of paid vacation.

— Personal emergency leave no longer only applies to workers at companies with 50 or more employees. All workers will get 10 days per year, two of them paid.

— Victims of domestic or sexual violence, or parents of children who have experienced or are threatened with it, will get five days of paid leave and 17 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave.

— Employers will not be allowed to request a sick note from an employee taking personal emergency leave.

— Parents whose children die will get unpaid leave of up to 104 weeks. It was previously only offered to parents when a child’s death was related to a crime.

— Employers must pay three hours of wages if they cancel a shift with fewer than 48 hours notice, with weather-dependent work exempted.

— Employees can refuse shifts without repercussion if the employer gives them less than four days notice.

— Employees on call must be paid three hours at their regular pay rate.

— Companies that misclassify workers as “independent contractors” instead of employees in order to skirt labour law obligations would be subject to fines.

— The maximum fine for employers who violate employment standards laws will be increased from $250, $500 and $1,000 for various violations to $350, $700 and $1,500. The government will publish the names of those who are fined.

And, remember this doesn’t include the additional organizing protections workers have received of the increase in the minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, now fast tracked to January 1, 2019 at $15.00 per hour.  Some might ask, who needs a union though once these protections are in place?

One answer might be:  To get these protections and more, and to keep them as governments come and go.  The other answer though is that without representation and collective organization, many of these new rights will be unknown and therefore unrealized by workers.  There will always be more employers, through ignore or design, who will ignore workers’ rights, and too few government enforcers to make them toe the line, which means representation on the job and collective action will become even more important now in moving these new legal obligations into the permanent culture of work and daily expectation of all workers.

The other huge opportunity would seem to be in organizing informal workers who are largely out of the reach of traditional union organizing.  With this package of new laws in Ontario, a rights-based workers association is desperately needed to allow workers to access these provisions and convert them into permanent entitlements.

There’s a loud whistle blowing, I hope a lot of organizations hear it and move to the sound.