Clarion Masthead

Signing up members for the future

The union prepares for a post-Janus world

Paul Narkunas, a John Jay College faculty member, signed up members on his campus in October.
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York College PSC Chapter Chair Scott Sheidlower didn’t use a week’s leave at the beginning of the semester to simply kick back and relax. He used his own time to get nearly 100 workers on his campus to sign new PSC membership cards.

Meeting with members face-to-face, he explained to them that the Trump administration is waging a war against unions – an upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is all but certain to strip public-sector unions of the ability to collect agency-shop fees sometime next year. Sheidlower told members that it might be tempting to opt out of union dues to save money, but that the savings won’t last long, and they’ll come at a steep cost. The collective strength of the union is what wins improvements, he said.

DECREASED BARGAINING POWER

“I tell them, ‘If you give yourself a 1-percent raise by not paying dues, but then next year you need more money, and you go directly to the president and ask her for a raise, what’s she going to say when she stops laughing?’” Sheidlower told Clarion, pointing out that members opting out of the union would mean an end of union power to bargain for wages. “Then they sign the card immediately.”

The takeaway for Sheidlower is simple: CUNY faculty and staff know the union has fought for contracts and job protections, and those things can only be fought for collectively. In a so-called “right-to-work” scenario, unions will have fewer financial resources to bargain contracts and represent workers.

“I make sure they know the union’s been fighting for them and for CUNY,” he said. “The argument is making them realize that they’d be by themselves, and everyone sort of gets it.”

The union is organizing members to sign these new cards, which are blue, in order to redouble the membership’s support of the union in the face of this major Supreme Court case. The card requires two signatures, one to assert one’s membership in the PSC and one to allow dues to be automatically deducted.

The case will go before the Supreme Court early in 2018, and a decision is likely by early summer. With a conservative majority on the bench, the Supreme Court is likely to agree with the plaintiff, who is backed by anti-union and corporate organizations, dealing a crippling blow to public-sector unions across the country. A similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, went before the Supreme Court in 2016, but the court came to a 4-4 deadlock after Justice Antonin Scalia died.

The PSC is preparing now for this new financial reality, which is why activists are talking to members on campuses about the importance of signing a new card to ensure a strong membership before this new regime comes into effect.

Campus activists are already making progress. Lehman College PSC Chapter Chair Robert Farrell said he found that most faculty and staff who were agency-shop fee payers hadn’t become union members not out of ideological opposition but simply because they had not had the opportunity to sign up.

“Newer faculty who may not have had contact with the union through the new faculty orientation process are really excited to sign up,” he said. “I think that’s especially true for a lot of adjuncts. One of the things we’re doing this year is to have an adjunct orientation process through the chapter, and we have had an opportunity to talk to people about membership and get people signed up.”

ANTI-UNION MARKETING

Penny Lewis, an associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute, has developed a PowerPoint presentation for activists, in which she explains how corporate, anti-union forces target members in right-to-work environments to encourage members to leave the union to save money, showing how activists can get ready for such a campaign.

“When the Harris v. Quinn case barred the collection of agency fees among certain home health care and childcare workers organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), anti-union groups began an aggressive direct marketing drive to convince SEIU members to opt out of membership,” Lewis said. “In Washington state, the Freedom Foundation successfully acquired lists of union members through public records requests. ‘Give Yourself a Raise This Christmas,’ read a jolly-looking holiday card sent home to union members. Members received robocalls to their homes. There was even a field operation, with some union members visited at home by people hired to encourage them to quit their union. The SEIU [local] initially lost dues and fees from nearly half of the childcare providers it represented.”

RECOMMITTING TO THE UNION

Lewis offered examples of how unions can combat such a campaign. “The union was able to gain members back with campaigns countering the assault from the Freedom Foundation,” she said. “Will the Freedom Foundation be bargaining a raise for us? Can we go to the Freedom Foundation when I have to file a grievance against my manager?’ As workers learned more about the scope of what the union did for them, and the nature of the attacks against the union, many rejoined.”

PSC President Barbara Bowen said, “The far-right groups funding the Janus case are not shy about their agenda: it is to wipe out the American labor movement, and with it every progressive policy advance unions have supported. Janus is an attack on civil rights, on women’s rights, on the right to a high-quality public education or health system. I don’t want to be the generation that lets these advances be destroyed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a turning point in American social history, and we in the PSC can make a difference simply by keeping our union strong.”

Members can learn more about Janus and sign the new membership card online. Also, members should talk to their chapter chair and delegates about signing new cards and taking cards to other rank-and-file members.

Organizers have met with chapter chairs and delegates to discuss best practices in talking to rank-and-file members about signing new cards. Interested members can be trained and activists are able to submit online contact forms to report the results of their conversations.

A message to members from the union stated, “All CUNY employees represented by the PSC should reaffirm their PSC membership or join the union by signing this new union card. The Supreme Court will rule [next] year on a case designed to destroy union power. But the Court cannot destroy our union if we all say, ‘Yes!’ to union membership.”