How Janus could hurt labor
In the midst of all the legalese and esoteric constitutional debate, there were two moments of clarity during oral arguments for Janus v. AFSCME – moments that summed up what was really at stake, and why the political right is so determined to win this case.
The first moment was when Justice Anthony Kennedy asked AFSCME attorney David Frederick, “I’m asking you whether or not in your view, if you do not prevail in this case, the unions will have less political influence – yes or no?”
Frederick answered, “Yes, they will have less political influence.”
Kennedy responded with a question that was more a statement than an inquiry: “Isn’t that the end of this case?”
The other came at the end, when the attorney for Mark Janus, the Chicago public servant who believes he should not have to pay a fee to cover the union benefits he enjoys, argued that even minor union matters such as grievance handling are a form of political advocacy that nonmembers should be exempt from subsidizing. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said from the bench, “You’re basically arguing [to] do away with unions.”
A SIMPLE PLAN
That is what this case is about – it is about diminishing and destroying the power of public-sector unions in order to destroy the protections and benefits they have fought so hard to win. Members should be prepared for a long fight ahead.
On February 26, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Janus v. AFSCME, and as many observers have noted, the conservative majority is highly likely to issue a ruling by this summer that will end the requirement of agency shop fees for non-union members in a bargaining unit.
Put simply, this allows a worker to enjoy the benefits of a union – collectively bargained salaries, health care and other benefits, safety protections and lots else – without having to pay dues. The effects of this ruling on the PSC and other public-sector unions in New York have the potential to be dire.
In the short term, what Janus will do is shrink the revenue that unions have to operate. In plain terms, unions will have less money for hiring organizers, member support staff, buses for lobbying trips, legal assistance and office space. A best-case scenario, a union in a so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) regime can still attain high rates of union membership – indeed, at the PSC, the full-time faculty and HEO rate of membership is 93 percent, and the rate is 98 percent among college laboratory technicians. But often that means organizers and activists are spending their hours and days signing up new members, time and energy that could be used for other campaigns. As Justice Kennedy – a Ronald Reagan appointee who by all indications from his line of questioning was ready to vote in favor of scraping agency shop fees – said, this situation would shrink the influence unions have on policy-making.
Here in New York, where full-time public-sector employment has often provided a coveted sense of secure employment with a retirement package and benefits, the loss of union power at the bargaining table and in the political sphere – what were once thought to be permanent and untouchable protections – could be the targets of the same anti-union outfits who funded and pushed the Janus case.
It might be hard to fathom that things such as public-sector pensions, collective bargaining rights or the merit-and-fitness exam system that defends against nepotism and favoritism in the civil service system could be taken away in a union-friendly state like New York. But states like Michigan and Wisconsin were once considered the bedrock of American industrial unionism and both those states became right-to-work by acts of the state legislatures. In Wisconsin, the state where AFSCME was founded in 1932, public-sector workers (with the exception of cops and firefighters) lost their right to collectively bargain.
With the new reality of Janus on its way, it’s worth it to review what so-called right-to-work laws have done to unions and worker protections at the state level.
- Less take-home pay. Household incomes are lower in right-to-work states with workers on average earning around $6,109 less than people living in non-RTW states. In Wisconsin, years after Governor Scott Walker pushed through right-to-work, state workers were denied annual raises by lawmakers and lost, on average, $10,843 in salary and benefits.
- Fewer benefits. Employer-sponsored pensions are nearly 5 percent lower in right-to-work states. Even public-sector workers are less likely to receive health insurance in these states meaning public workers are less likely to obtain a pension, or even health insurance compared to their colleagues in non-RTW states.
- Higher poverty. The poverty rate in right-to-work states is over 15 percent compared to an average of 12 percent in non-right-to-work states. In addition, self-employed workers report less personal income than they do in states with collective bargaining.
- Fewer union members. The State Policy Network, an umbrella group of think tanks that advocates for right-to-work laws, reported that, in Michigan alone, over 13,000 members left their unions. This caused unions to lose at least $8 million per year. In anticipation of the Janus ruling, the Service Employees International Union, which represents workers in both the public and private sectors, announced at the end of 2016 that it would decrease its annual $300 million budget by 30 percent.
- Fewer resources for students. Thirteen out of 15 states that spend the least per student are right-to-work states. Wisconsin students from low-performing schools did worse on standardized tests after passage of a right-to-work law in 2015.
- Minor impact on economic growth. Advocates of right-to-work proclaim it will cause companies to bring jobs despite evidence to the contrary. During the first year after Indiana passed right-to-work in 2012, state officials could not find one company that moved there because of the law.
THERE IS HOPE
The lesson from this bleak landscape is that these things can happen in New York, but they do not have to happen. That is why unions like the PSC are preparing and organizing for the future.
For the last year, PSC activists have reached out to members and agency shop fee payers to sign recommitment cards, to solidify the union’s standing when the Supreme Court decision comes down. In the future, this campaign will become permanent. Delegates, chapter chairs and rank-and-file activists will constantly need to be on the lookout for new hires and nonmembers, and talk to them about the importance of joining and becoming a full member.
Such an argument is not hard to make: the gains the union has won, such as teaching load reduction, multiyear appointments for adjuncts, paid parental leave, salary increases and pay differentials for HEOs were made possible because the union stood united. Membership and recommitment from across the PSC bargaining units are the engine of the union’s contract campaign and are critical to winning the demands the union has issued to management, particularly $7,000 per course for adjuncts, 5 percent annual wage increases and other “equity” salary boosts for professional staff and part-timers.
There are, indeed, points of inspiration. Teachers’ unions around the country are mobilizing and making historic gains. Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas has remained a strong voice for workers in major casinos while maintaining density above 90 percent in a right-to-work state.
PSC can remain strong in light of the loss of agency fees from nonmembers (or “free riders”) if every member considers her-/himself an activist and signs up new members every semester. The new, blue union membership cards (available from your chapter chair or PSC staff organizer) or the online membership card are a commitment to the union and its ability to sustain power to negotiate a strong contract and advocate for a strong CUNY.
However the court rules, the road ahead for labor is organizing and more organizing. It can be done.