Creative Commons/Flickr User KyleRush
The U.S. Supreme Court's nine justices are expected to overturn decades of precedent when they hear a new challenge to fair-share fees collected by public-sector unions. 

A new challenge to public sector workers that is expected to deal a major blow to their ability to bargain collectively is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, will be heard sometime early next year and decided by the end of the court session in June. In effect, a ruling for the plaintiff, Illinois state employee Mark Janus, would make all public-sector workers – including potentially tens of thousands in the IBEW – subject to a national right-to-work law.

Right-to-work laws allow employees in a union workplace to opt out of paying so-called “fair share” fees that help the union cover the costs of collective bargaining and representation performed on their behalf. Unions are required by law to provide those services whether a worker is a member or not, so the fees help to prevent members from shouldering the burden for co-workers who choose to accept the benefits that come with a union to without contributing to the costs.

Studies show that workers in right-to-work states – there are 28 of them currently – make $6,901 less each year on average than their counterparts in free bargaining states. That’s because strong unions raise wages for their own members and that effect trickles down even to nonunion workers. Unions also improve safety standards across the board, and statistics show the risk of workplace death is 49 percent higher in right-to-work states.

“Enacting right-to-work for public employees is a political move aimed at hurting organized labor,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “And we all know the effect of weakened labor is working people with less power to stand up for themselves, less power to negotiate fair contracts and less control over how they’re treated in the workplace.

“This Janus case will mean state and local government employees, plus our members at public utilities, will have to fight even harder to get the treatment they deserve,” Stephenson said.

Since the appointment of Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch by Donald Trump earlier this year, unions with public employee members have been preparing for the fallout from the case, which looks very likely to be decided against unions and in favor of the corporate special interests who are funding legal expenses for the plaintiff.

At Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, Business Manager Tom Dalzell launched a member-driven “fight back” campaign to educate the local’s 2,500 public sector members on how to talk with their co-workers about the union. More than 500 of the local’s members work for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, and the rest are employed at other public utilities or work for cities and towns across northern California.

One of dozens of volunteer organizing committees at Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 who are assembling to combat the fallout from the Janus v. AFSCME decision, expected next year.
Photo Credit: Eileen Purcell

“We’re approaching this like we’re organizing a nonunion employer, with that same passion and urgency,” said Local 1245 organizer Fred Ross. “If working people are going to be attacked like this, we’re making sure they’re prepared to fight back. So we’ve put together a plan to empower our members to talk to one another and to take ownership of their union. If all of our public-sector members know why they belong to the union and why it’s critical to their power in the workplace, then right-to-work doesn’t hurt us one bit.”

Local 1245’s strategy is three-pronged, starting with an education campaign for members about the threat Janus presents and why it’s important that they fight back early. Second, Ross and his team have recruited volunteer organizing committees within each public-sector workplace with the goal of having one-on-one, face-to-face conversations with every member about why their membership in the IBEW is important. And finally, VOC members are asking every public worker to re-sign a commitment to union membership even if the Supreme Court decision makes their dues voluntary next summer.

“There’s not much we can do to influence what the Supreme Court is going to do,” Ross said. “So we’re taking the initiative here, and we’re making the argument to every single member that they’re better off as part of the IBEW. We feel really positive that the message is working.”

A proactive approach will be a theme at the upcoming Railroad/Government Employees Conference being held later this month in Phoenix. “There are small gains to be made by being reactive, but seizing the initiative is how we’ll really be successful,” said Government Employees Department Director Paul O’Connor.

Efforts like the one at Local 1245 and elsewhere are important, O’Connor says, so that unions and working people can spend more time playing offense instead of defense, even in the face of anti-union efforts by conservative politicians. “I hope between now and when the Janus decision is announced, we’ll have a lot more local unions working to reinforce the idea among their public-sector members that we’ve got more power and influence when we all stick together.”

IBEW members work across the U.S. in public-sector fields ranging from municipal utilities to  law enforcement. Federal workers have long been subject to right-to-work regulations and won’t be affected by the Janus case.

Ross says he and lead organizer Eileen Purcell originally planned to roll out the recommitment cards in the spring, closer to the court’s expected decision, but that enthusiasm among the VOC members moved up the timeline to September. “The members changed our plans because they wanted to take charge now,” Ross said. “We’re going to be much stronger after this. These people know they can’t afford a weak union, and they’re willing to work for it.”

Ninth District International Vice President John J. O’Rourke says he’s been encouraging leaders across his district to prepare for the fallout from Janus. “Our local unions with public employees are involved in internal organizing and educating their members on our IBEW values,” he said. “Stewards are reaching out to fee payers and reminding them of the importance of being represented by the local union, and we’ve asked business managers to make this a priority.” But, he cautioned, the work won’t stop anytime soon. “This has to be an ongoing campaign of educating our members on the advantages of being represented by the IBEW.”

Stephenson, too, is glad to see local unions planning ahead for the battle to come, and he encourages them to reach out to one another and to the international for help.

“If this case goes the way we expect it will, there are a lot of people out there who would love to see public unions fail,” he said of organizations like the National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation, which seeks to bankrupt unions by requiring them to spend resources on non-members.

“They’re going to be aggressive, calling our members, arguing that they should stop paying dues, and we’ve got to be ready. Whatever we can do in the next six months will result in stronger locals and more power in the hands of working people. It’s time to get to work.”