The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 08, 2019

Public sector unions try new strategies in post-Janus world

By The Building Tradesman



By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)—The Supreme Court’s June 2018 Janus vs. AFSCME ruling against public sector unions, has, in union membership terms, turned out to be a dud so far. At least that’s what top leaders of the nation’s four biggest public-sector unions say. But it's only been eight months since the decision was handed down.

And their added big message is that “unions are vehicles for workers’ voices, not the voices themselves” as Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten put it. 

Presidents Weingarten, Lee Saunders of AFSCME and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees, and Vice President Becky Pringle of the National Education Association discussed how to bring that message to workers in an impromptu press conference with the small group of reporters covering the Future of Unions conference, earlier in February.

Overhanging the sessions was that 33.9 percent of public-sector workers – Teachers, Fire Fighters, nurses, EMTs and others – were unionized at the end of 2018, a drop of .5 percent from 2017. Only 10.5 percent of all U.S. workers, public and private, are union members. In the private sector alone, just 6.4 percent of workers are union members.

So the radical right, Republicans and big business foes of workers and unions, having trashed private sector unions, trained their sights on the public sector. Their aim, as one top right-wing honcho admitted in 2017, was to kill unions by taking their money away. “Defund the left,” he called it.

Their vehicle was the Janus vs AFSCME District Council 31 lawsuit, a trumped-up case the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year. And the tribunal’s five-man Republican-named majority, voting on ideological lines, reversed a 1975 precedent. The justices ruled every state and local public-sector worker in the U.S. – all 6.2 million of them – would be a potential “free rider,” able to use unions’ services without paying one red cent for them, contract or no contract. But the big public worker unions, and others with public worker members, read the tea leaves and prepared for the court’s decision. The right – whom Pringle called “the forces of evil” -- expected unionists to defect in droves once they didn’t have to pay for services. Wrong.

Not only that, but teachers in particular roared back, supporting the nationwide student-led marches, protests and demands for stricter gun control after the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre of 14 students and three AFT teachers at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Weingarten pointed out. 

The educators followed that by being forced into successful strikes for up-to-date textbooks, needed school repairs and reconstruction, more counselors and nurses for students and higher pay for themselves in West Virginia – statewide -- Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and, most recently, Los Angeles, she added. 

SEIU stepped up its organizing among “independent contractor” workers, after first getting state legislatures and city councils to pass laws reclassifying those workers as “employees,” who are organizable under labor law, Henry said. 

“All over the country, we keep listening and responding to their demands” as well as demands from the union’s own members, she explained. And SEIU jumped in with “technical assistance” to the hundreds of thousands of Google workers who staged a one-day walkout over their tech firm’s refusal to deal with issues of sexual harassment or worse on the job. “It’s a matter of seizing opportunity and supporting those workers without undermining others,” Henry added.

SEIU also looks to wider community issues to fuel its organizing efforts. Henry mentioned, as an example, campaigning for enforceable paid sick and family leave as a way to get more people, in and out of the union, into organizing and being organized.

“We have a holistic view” of who needs unionization, Weingarten elaborated. Her union views the independent contractors, including teachers in so-called charter schools, as “contingent workers,” and thus organizable. By law, independent contractors are not.

Saunders said his union started its one-on-one communications with its 1.2 million members two years before the Janus ruling, asking each what they wanted from their union and urging them to get involved. It reached an overwhelming majority and also literally re-signed all those it talked with to union membership cards.


And it didn’t stop there. AFSCME went after new units. “By the end of February, we’ll have collective bargaining rights for all state workers in Nevada,” he predicted. “We’re also looking at specific targets in hospitals and health care.”

Pringle said NEA is working with scholars on how “to understand the uprisings” of the teachers, which started from the bottom up. Union leaders scrambled to catch up.

“It’s definitely different from (traditional) organizing,” especially because the teacher uprisings and forced strikes occurred in 'right to work' states, except for Los Angeles, she admitted. Some even legally bar public workers from striking.  

NEA, the nation’s largest union, also must figure out how to “harness the collective power of the millennials.” The key, she said, will be “not by telling them” what to do and what issues to concentrate on “but by honoring and respecting their different vision.”

It worked in West Virginia, she said. NEA, the dominant teachers’ union in the right-to-work Mountaineer State, picked up 1,200 members since the forced strike last year. “It’s a ‘yes, and’” approach of “how we can bring the deal home,” Pringle said. Adjusting to Janus took “disruptive innovation and it’s scary. But it’s also a huge opportunity – and we’re not done.”