From union-bashing flyers to
deceptive emails, targeted ads on social media, intrusive phone calls and even
unwelcome visitors at the door, the crusade against America’s public workers
has gone into overdrive since the Supreme Court’s bruising decision in Janus v.
AFSCME in June.
|Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 organizing steward Alyssa Fernandez engages with other members training to be part of the local’s highly successful internal organizing committees. Photo by John Storey, courtesy of IBEW Local 1245.
But for all the millions being poured into arm-twisting campaigns, union members are standing their ground.
Crediting member-to-member outreach, Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 reports that less than 1 percent of the 2,400 public employees it represents have stopped paying the agency fees that support bargaining unit work.
“I am rarely at a loss for words, but seeing all of you and knowing what you accomplished is awe-inspiring,” Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell told more than 100 member-organizers at a post-Janus summit in July.
Their efforts been so effective that some fee-payers, their eyes opened to the dollar-and-cents value of unions, have joined the IBEW as full dues-paying members.
“We’ve given you the resources and training, and you’ve gone out and moved mountains,” Dalzell said, referring to the volunteer organizing committee program the local established for internal organizing at 34 public-sector worksites. “Your work has exceeded any expectation or dream that we had. You’ve proved that there’s nothing more effective than member-to-member communication.”
Janus opened the door for public workers to freeload off their unions, just as state right-to-work laws create free riders in the private sector. Both scenarios let workers withhold agency fees, their share of the bill for contract talks, grievances and other ways unions represent members and nonmembers alike. Contrary to opponents’ talking points, the fees are entirely separate from unions’ political action funds.
With the most union members of any state, California’s labor movement began preparing long in advance for the Supreme Court’s expected blow.
|Members of Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 show their solidarity after the Janus ruling.
Local 1245 played a leading role, sending staff and VOC emissaries to help other IBEW locals, conducting Central Labor Council trainings and even designing the popular “I’m In” logo, a symbol of ever-growing solidarity as workers sign cards pledging to stick with their unions.
Across the country, Clifton, N.J., Local 1158 is another IBEW success story. Building on Business Manager and International Executive Council member Joe Calabro’s custom of personal outreach, the local hasn’t lost any of its 2,000 public-sector members, and it’s on the verge of adding 100 more.
In media coverage, other public sector unions are reporting similar results. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ northern New England council said in September that just 20 of the 40,000 workers it represents have stopped paying fees. In the same article, the National Association of Government Employees, said only one of its 40,000 dues-payers had left, while 20 fee-payers have joined the union. Even some teachers’ unions, fiercely targeted by “drop-your-union” propagandists, say membership gains are outpacing losses.
To be clear, no one in the labor movement is dismissing the very real threat to unions from Janus and the hostile, billionaire-backed forces exploiting the ruling. But early progress is spurring cautious optimism.
“The turnaround we’ve had has been night and day in terms of our brotherhood,” Dave Williams, a Redding, Calif., VOC leader said at July’s summit. “Something we talked about a lot was all the [union members] who came before us and fought for everything, all the wages and benefits that we have now. No one wants to lose what we have.”
Leading the Way
Preparing for Janus, in concert with the California Labor Federation and IBEW’s Ninth District, Local 1245 shared its strategies and impressive results from nearly a decade of recruiting member-organizers and training them to help co-workers see the difference the union makes in their lives.
Organizer Fred Ross championed the concept when he joined Local 1245 after many years with the Farmworkers.
“It’s the heart of a strong, vibrant union – members who come together to really own their union and fight for it and defend it and promote it,” Ross said.
The program focused primarily on private-sector units until the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case began its climb to the Supreme Court. An earlier version of Janus, the case was derailed by the death of Justice Anton Scalia in February 2016, which left the anti-union plaintiffs without a fifth and deciding vote.
Ross talked about the local’s efforts on a Labor Day edition of the Washington D.C.-based radio program Union City, explaining that VOCs focus on what’s at stake for members, not politics.
“This attack on labor didn’t start in November 2016,” Ross said. “We go back and lay out the economic forces and corporate powers that are out to destroy unions. Why? Because we have power. They want right-to-work everywhere. They don’t even want the minimum wage.”
Making the Case
|San Diego Local 465 transit mechanic Juan Castaneda shows his IBEW pride.
Using the internal VOC model to full advantage, San Diego Local 465 started collecting commitment cards from its 1,100 public transit and utility members well in advance of the Supreme Court’s June ruling.
Even in the valley he describes as “pretty anti-union,” Business Manager Nate Fairman, said VOC members at the local irrigation district he represents are signing up about 20 new dues-payers a month.
Fairman strips Janus to its core in talking to members: “This isn’t about anything other than being able to provide for your family,” he tells them. “Are you standing with your co-workers or are you standing with the corporations and billionaires who want to slash your pay and benefits so that they can have more?”
VOC training helps members deliver that message through the filter of their own stories.
From the earliest sessions, Local 1245 organizer Eileen Purcell was awed by what members were willing to share as they sat and described to one another how the union made their life better.
Some, like Purcell herself, said they owed their lives to union-provided health care. For others, the union saved their job; the union means they can retire with financial peace of mind; the union ensures women get equal pay for equal work; union-scale wages allow one parent to stay home with the kids. One man revealed that he wouldn’t have a family at all without IBEW.
“He said his union health plan allowed him to have access to fertility treatment that he couldn’t have afforded on his own,” Purcell said.
Building on the IBEW’s proven approaches to organizing, the VOC game plan began with staff and stewards seeking out “spark plugs,” as Purcell describes them – “committed, animated, motivated members who were comfortable having one-on-one, face-to-face conversations about what we stood to lose.”
The internal committees grew rapidly, now exceeding more than 200 member-organizers. “Every time we brought in a group, we’d say, ‘List five people you can talk to and underline one person you want to invite to the next meeting we have,’” Purcell said.
They learned from each other, as well as from instructors. At a February summit chronicled on the local’s website, even relatively new activists had persuasive answers when asked how they’d explain the consequences of Janus and right-to-work laws.
“Imagine that we all go out to eat at the restaurant. Everyone has drinks, dinner and dessert,” said Joseph Stewart, a member at PG&E. “But at the end of the meal, some people decide that they aren’t going to pay. That’s pretty much what right-to-work is.”
International President Lonnie R. Stephenson marvels at how thoughtful, passionate and meticulous IBEW members, leaders and staff have been in confronting Janus. He hopes all locals and bargaining units – public and private sector – are taking notes.
“I’m so proud of our locals across the country that have put themselves on the front lines of this battle, and I know that’s more locals than we’re even aware of right now,” he said. “We can learn so much from what they’ve accomplished, and from the roadblocks they’ve probably hit at points. The more we share our struggles and successes, the stronger we get. And we can make the entire labor movement stronger in the process.”
Making the Connection
Power in numbers is essential, but it’s more than that.
“It’s not just the numbers but also the strength, how deep the solidarity is among members, how strong their union consciousness is,” Ross said.
To demonstrate how big a difference that makes, VOCs and union leaders have been contrasting final contracts with employers’ early demands, showing members the actual paperwork chock-full of takeaways.
“When they take a look at the first proposal the employer puts on the table, it’s powerful, and beyond anecdotal,” said Ray Thomas, senior assistant business manager for Local 1245’s public sector. “It’s the truth about what employers would do if they could.”
At the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, VOC leaders compared IBEW’s original 16-page contract to the latest agreement spanning more than 200 pages, a document reflecting years of negotiating better wages and life-changing benefits for members and their families.
Local 1158’s Calabro has done the same sort of thing and is planning a deeper analysis spanning 20 years or more. Workers will be able to see the cumulative effect of having a union over time, versus what the employer wanted in each round of bargaining.
Last year, Fairman pulled back the curtain on talks at Imperial Irrigation, showing members the “zero, zero, zero” proposal for raises over three years, cuts in sick leave and overtime and other rollbacks in the public utility’s opening bid.
“We said, ‘This is your contract if IBEW 465 ceased to exist,’” Fairman said, adding that the final offer included raises and no takeaways. “We had more people turn out to vote than ever before.”
Another looming threat to California public workers under Janus is that they are exempt from the state labor code’s wage and hour provisions. “It’s only because of our negotiated contracts that there are rules about overtime, meal breaks, rest breaks, wages and a lot of other things,” Thomas said. “It’s been important to educate people about that. Even if they have some animus toward labor, they can still appreciate the protections of their contract.”
|Pins, hats and T-shirts are helping members spread the “I’m In” message.
Calabro has been blunt with members about the direct line between their dues and the union’s ability to represent them.
He has a virtual A-Z list of members, from administrative workers to Zamboni drivers, with a vast array of city and county employees in between, even doctors.
He’s especially proud of a new four-year contract for 400 workers at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, one of the country’s largest wastewater treatment facilities. It includes 3 percent annual raises and nearly doubles the employer’s contribution to workers’ annuity plan, among other highlights.
The contract didn’t go unnoticed by nearly 100 non-represented workers at PVSC, whose only voice on the job had been a feeble association. Seeking the same strong representation as their IBEW co-workers, they approached the local.
“They wanted to dissolve their association and join us,” Calabro said. “They saw all the positives for our membership all these years. With Janus looming, they said, ‘We want to part of the IBEW.’”
More than 90 percent of the workers quickly signed cards to join the union. The legal process to make them official members is underway.
Meanwhile, all of the roughly 2,000 members across Local 1158’s public worksites are still aboard, and Calabro and his team have even signed up most of their 35 fee-payers since the Janus ruling.
He attributes it to personal contact that’s been a hallmark of his leadership over 27 years as business manager. “That’s the thing about my local, we’re out there constantly with all the employees, but especially the members,” he said. “When an employee sees me, they know they can talk to me.”
Calabro spells out the reality of what would happen if the union’s membership dwindles, if people decide the Janus decision is a free pass to stop paying dues.
“I tell them that if we lose too many members, we can’t afford to be there anymore. If we have to walk out, the contract goes, too – their vacation time, their holidays, their pay rate, all the benefits they have, it’s all up for grabs.
“I say that for the cost of your union dues, you get all the benefits, we handle your grievances and negotiate your contracts,” he said, noting that Local 1158’s dues are capped at $744 a year and many public workers pay less.
“You can’t be penny-wise and dollar-foolish,” Calabro cautions.
He is angered by union-busters’ deceitful claims that agency fees violate workers’ First Amendment rights. In fact, the fees were designed specifically to protect free speech, separating what unions spend on pro-worker political and legislative battles from the costs of bargaining, grievances and other direct representation.
“Agency fees were created so that workers who object to political action could stop paying for it, without cutting off the rest of the revenue that unions need,” Calabro said. “But that wasn't enough for the anti-union groups, so they’re attacking any dues, fees or other payments to try to bleed us dry. They don’t want workers to have anyone left to fight for them.”
‘The Greatest Tool’
Laying the groundwork for California’s more formal response to Janus statewide, the labor federation produced an extensive tool kit of materials, hosted workshops and otherwise braced unions for the expected blow.
Local 465’s Fairman sent his entire team, including office assistants and dues clerks who answer members’ calls, to California Labor Federation training in San Diego.
“Everyone on staff has to know what to say and what not to say,” he said. “We have to assume that there are people on the other side out there fishing to see if someone says, ‘No, you can’t drop your membership,’ and then they file an unfair labor practice complaint.”
Role-playing exercises have been very helpful with messaging; “what to say to encourage someone to stay in the union, how to talk to a frustrated member,” Fairman said. “It’s good to practice.”
Most important, Fairman said, is listening. “We don’t go into worksite meetings and say first thing, ‘just sign this card.’ We ask what they’d like to see the union do more of and what they like about the contract, things they want. Then we explain that that the way we get there is by staying united.”
The IBEW is showing other unions how that’s done, a prominent labor expert said at a Local 1245 summit.
“Unions all over the country are trying to figure out how to respond to Janus effectively, and it obviously has to be by getting lots of members involved, educated, and feeling like they can explain this in a common-sense way to other people,” said Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon political economist whose research has made him one of the nation’s leading union advocates.
“Just look at the number of people who are in this room, who are active, who are not being paid to be here. That’s really the greatest tool we have to fight back.”