The multi-year campaign to cripple public sector unions did not begin with the Janus case in 2017, and it did not end with the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in June. Now the billionaires who funded the campaign are turning their attention, and their wallets, to convincing workers to quit their unions.
The Janus decision was designed to cripple unions but Democratic lawmakers like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, pictured here at a 2016 campaign event, are passing laws to protect public sector workers. Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jerry Brown of California are among the others leading the way for union members.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr User Phil Murphy for Governor
After Janus, unions have to represent every public-sector worker in a bargaining unit but cannot require any of them to pay for that representation. Unions, including IBEW locals representing public workers, are furiously organizing internally, explaining the value not only of collective bargaining but the value of membership.
They are up against the wealthiest people and corporations in the country. Congress, the Judiciary and the White House are separate branches of government, but at present, they are equally hostile to organized labor. Laws, regulations and judgments look increasingly like press releases from the Chamber of Commerce.
But unions are not fighting this battle for worker dignity alone. At least half a dozen states are taking action to blunt the corporate assault on public sector unions.
New York, for example, is increasing public worker privacy protections to make it harder for telemarketers and astroturf canvassers to contact workers about leaving the union. New York and New Jersey are making it easier for public sector unions to talk to new hires about the benefits of membership. And Democrats in Illinois are proposing a rule that would let unions charge nonmembers for legally required services, including representation in grievance hearings. Some states and municipalities in California are considering paying unions for running apprenticeships and training programs or for administering benefits programs.
“No question Janus was a blow to organized labor, but what the courts take away, people still want – unions haven’t been this popular in my lifetime. There are still representatives of the people out there who understand this,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Even in the face of all their money, we have people, and people still have power and will be heard.”
Workers in all states can still opt out of paying for union political activity by filling out a form. This was true before Janus. The Supreme Court massively increased the financial incentive for workers to quit the union. But this is no change for workers in the 26 states that already have right-to-work laws. There, nothing changes. Union members in those states already pay for co-workers who get the benefit of union protection and collective bargaining without putting in a dime to support it.
The goal of Janus was to bring the lower wages, bad faith, and worse safety standards to the primarily blue states that have always rejected the false promise of right-to-work.
In preparation for the ruling, one of the many right-wing advocacy groups that helped fund the Janus lawsuit, the Freedom Foundation, began acquiring lists of workers and identifying public employees. According to Bloomberg News, it plans a multi-pronged summertime assault combining ads on TV, cable and social media with a platoon of canvassers sent to government offices, even going to workers’ homes to ask them to abandon their union.
The money for the campaign comes from a Who’s Who of the right-wing moneyed classes from billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, billionaires Richard and Helen DeVos and the billionaires behind the Harry Bradley Foundation.
They are also funding around a dozen lawsuits seeking to claw back dues paid to public sector unions over the last 40 years
“They won’t be satisfied until we silently serve them, until they’ve finally put working people ‘in our place,’” Stephenson said. “They’ve got money, but unions are never alone. We have what they don’t: people, justice and endurance. And we still have friends.”
Many of those friends are at the state level, where work has been going on behind the scenes for months to help shore up public-sector unions ahead of Janus.
In New York, the 2018-2019 state budget contained multiple reforms to obey the decision and support public unions.
Most people think of teachers, first responders and administrators when they think of union public workers, but the IBEW also represents state and local utility workers and even Deputy Attorneys General in New Jersey, including Trenton, N.J., Local 33 President Andrew Reese and members Bill Andersen and Janine Long.
First, all state agencies must allow time for every new worker to meet with their steward to discuss membership in the union within 30 days of hire. It also simplifies joining and paying dues.A change was also made to a labor relations statute that covers most public employees in New York State. Unions are still required file a grievance and proceed to arbitration on behalf of non-dues paying members, but unions no longer have to pay for an attorney to represent the non-dues paying member in some circumstances, said Third District International Representative Ellen Redmond.
While the state can’t keep people from free riding, it can make it a less rosy proposition. The budget act also changed a union’s duties to nonmembers, limiting them to negotiating and enforcing contracts. It also authorizes unions to provide services to members that are unavailable to those who won’t pay their share.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo then signed an executive order protecting worker privacy, requiring a FOIA request to get a worker’s home address and contact information.
“The federal government is anti-union, they’ve made that clear,” said Cuomo. “We’ve passed a bill that helps protect unions in this state.”
“At the end of the day we need to be supporting candidates who support unions and are vocal about it.We can’t allow elected officials to say they support us, but really don’t behind closed doors,” Redmond said.
The IBEW has thousands of state and municipal workers on its membership rolls in New Jersey, from Deputy Attorneys General to public-sector managers, utility and maintenance workers.
In March, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, which, similar to the New York law, gives public-employee unions the right to meet with members and recruit in the workplace within the first few weeks on the job.
“They have to notify us when someone new is hired and give us time to meet with them. ‘Congrats your hired; here is the paperwork to join the union,’” said Third District International Representative Wyatt Earp. “If you’re at a job for six months before anyone at the local knows you’re there, it’s a lot harder prospect explaining why we are valuable.”
Earp said the law was just the “first swipe,” taken before the Supreme Court ruled. Lawmakers are now ready for another go, he said. One bill under consideration would only let members opt out once a year. Another would limit what services must be provided to non-payers.
Earp said he could also see some cost sharing between unions and the state for the services provided by an organized workforce.
“Efficient bargaining and the resolution of grievances has a value not just to workers but to tax payers as well,” Earp said “You saw all those teachers strikes in the South? We don’t want that in New Jersey.”
The strategy to strangle unions has its home in corner offices and corporate-funded think tanks across the country, but the Janus case itself came out of Illinois. The lawsuit was originally brought by the billionaire Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Only after the court said Rauner had no standing and threw him off the suit was state worker Mark Janus added as the figurehead.
This was only one front of Rauner’s war on his own state workers. Rauner issued an executive order in 2015 instructing Illinois to stop collecting fair share fees, tried and failed to pass right-to-work statewide and tried to slash the state education budget. He has even instructed the state’s human resources department, CMS, to send instructions on leaving the union to every worker.
“Gov. Rauner has been doing victory laps. He believes this is a huge victory for him. Disabling organized labor has been his goal since before he became governor. There is even an official state website called “Change Your Union Membership Status,’” said Sixth District International Representative Shad Etchason.
One of the first steps Labor took, even before the verdict, is going after Rauner in November. Already facing a tough challenge from Democrat J.B. Pritzker, a coalition of unions paid for a petition drive to get pro-union Republican state Sen. Sam McCann on the ballot as a third-party candidate that could split Republican voters and create a clear a path for Pritzker.
If November goes their way, Etchason said, there will be realistic options to limit the fallout from Janus.
“I know the labor committee chairmen in the [state] House and Senate are looking at options, but as long as Rauner is in Springfield, it won’t happen,” he said.
The Janus decision has the potential to be most disruptive in large, union-strong states, and none are larger or bluer than California, which has nearly 900,000 state and local workers. With cities larger than some states, the response to Janus has been rippling up and down California from the statehouse to city halls.
In Northern California, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors and the cities of Oakland, Emeryville have all issued resolutions declaring their commitment to a strong, organized public workforce.
While the state hasn’t passed the kinds of protections that New York and New Jersey have, they are under discussion said Ninth District International Representative Victor Uno.
Where they have taken action is protecting public workers’ privacy. The billionaire funded summer disorganization drive has plans to target workers at home. The state now protects that information from campaign workers. The state also moved aggressively to allow all new hires to speak with stewards.
And IBEW locals with significant numbers of public workers in their memberships including Vacaville Local 1245, San Diego Local 465 and Diamond Bar Local 47 aren’t waiting to be rescued. They all are months into internal organizing campaigns to explain the value of membership.
“We have a simple message: who is looking out for you?” Stephenson said. “On the one hand we are emphasizing the value of membership, the benefits of joining in union. And on the other, we want people to think long and hard about why these billionaires are spending so much of their money to get you to abandon your brothers and sisters. Are they going to help you negotiate safety rules? Leave? Benefits? Where will these billionaires be after you listen to them and do what they want? Where have they ever been?”