In Janus v AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to rule that all public employee union fees must be voluntary, akin to ‘right-to-work.’ A decision is expected any day. Don McIntosh of the Labor Press talked with University of Oregon labor educator Gordon Lafer about what that means.
What do you think the impact of Janus will be on the labor movement?
It’s hard to tell. My Ph.D. is in political science. I come from a profession that failed to predict the downfall of the Soviet Union. But it’s obviously going to be significant, partly because of the decision itself, and partly because the Freedom Foundation and other corporate-funded organizations are putting money in, trying to capitalize on the decision, to drive people to quitting their union membership. For unions, even if there’s a 15 or 20 percent decline in membership, that still has significant ramifications in terms of budget and staffing, having to make hard decisions internally. I think there’s no way it’s not going to be significant — even in unions that have done a good job of reaching out to everybody in their workplace to explain to people who are now fair share fee payers why it makes sense for them to become full members. Obviously that’s a different conversation when the difference between being a union member or not goes from 10 percent to 100 percent [of union dues].
What are the best responses to the threat of Janus that you have seen?
I don’t know anybody who has an easy four-point answer. In the unions that I’ve talked to, people are making sure to negotiate the right to get information on new employees and be involved in new employee orientation. There are workplaces where the union gets to meet with everybody and explain the union when they’re hired, and other workplaces where they’re not, or where they get anti-union pitches when they’re hired. Those things matter.
[Having contracts that allow for] union orientation has been kind of spotty. Even within the same union, some contracts have it and some don’t. But I think it’s become now more of a priority to have that universally in all contracts. And to have information about when people are hired, and also frankly when people resign their membership — to not be caught because of bureaucratic reasons in a situation where there’s an opening for a lawsuit from people who will be trolling to look for opportunities to sue unions.
We don’t know how the ruling is going to come down, but if the ruling says when someone puts in a piece of paper saying “I don’t want to be a member any more,” then from that day forward, they can’t be paying any kind of fair share fees — then you need to have the mechanism to know when that is as soon as possible. We know that the same corporate-funded organizations that funded this lawsuit, that fund the Freedom Foundation, are going to be looking for opportunities to sue unions over things like that, because obviously what they want to do is bankrupt the labor movement.
There are a number of unions that have taken this as a sign that they need to be more in touch with their members. But what that looks like is still a work in progress. It’s one thing to say we need to talk to every single member, but then to know what kind of conversations make people feel like they want to stay involved in the union fight. There are two broad directions I’ve seen as good practices. One is to quantify and concretize what is the value of a union. Most union members got a job in a place where there already was a union, and it kind of feels like, “Oh well we have the salary and benefits and all this other stuff because that’s what the employer would give us even without the union.” Obviously that’s not true, but figuring out how to quantify what you get for your dues … I’ve seen unions and state federations try to do that. The other thing, which in some ways is harder, I think fits with unions that are trying to both organize around issues in the workplace and also do what gets called bargaining for the common good. It’s saying: “What is it that members really care about, that makes the union compelling to people who have not been involved?” So there are education unions that are fighting around class size and education budgets and defense of the profession. I would say what the profession is is under attack for teachers, for higher ed, for nurses for engineers. There are places where that may be the kind of fight that is compelling to people who otherwise might drop out of the union.
What’s the single best reason public sector workers would want to pay union dues when they no longer have to?
I think there’s a million reasons. At the most minimal level, what you get in wages and benefits is far more than you pay in dues. And if that wasn’t true, then unions would be decertified. And a lot of that stuff is established over years. One of the ways I’ve started to look at it is: In negotiations, at the end, management says, “Here’s our ‘best and final’ offer.” I think looking at not the “best and final” but the “first and worst” is one guide to what would be happening here if there was no union. Management tells us when they make their proposals, which are then beaten back in bargaining: “Here’s what we want.” So we know if they didn’t have to bargain at all, they would not only have lower wages and benefits, but no seniority, and work responsibilities would be hugely increased. So I think it’s the money, but it’s also many other things: A grievance process, a right to due process, some agreement that your job description can’t just be changed from day to day. And in addition to that, public sector unions — in their political activity — are the number one force that keeps public services decently funded, to the extent that they are decently funded. [Maintaining] funding for public services is about keeping the jobs, but it’s also about doing the job right. Most people want to be able to do their job right, in every kind of job. The ability to do your job right is to a large extent dependent on overall funding, and then on things like staff levels and work rules that unions negotiate. So I think there are no end of reasons why it makes sense to pay dues as a public sector employee. But you don’t always get to have half hour conversations with everybody. We’re going to need to have a lot more members doing things that up until now have been done by staff, including having these conversations. And there are unions that have made progress in that direction, but there’s still a lot more work to be done.
The assumption has been that an adverse Janus decision will hurt the union movement. Do you agree? Do you think there’s any possibility of a silver lining or that something good could come of it?
Obviously all the corporate people aren’t putting money into this because they think it’s going to make the labor movement stronger, so I don’t want to be Pollyannah-ish about it, but to the extent that unions move toward bargaining for the common good and engaging members to take over the work of the union — those are directions a lot of people in the labor movement have been wanting to move in anyway, as best practices of good unions. So to the extent that Janus is a spur to go in that direction, I do think that there are unions that could emerge stronger.