NEW YORK, N.Y.—Shaun François, president of District Council 37’s Local 372, wore a black shirt with the slogan, “If You Stay Ready, You Won’t Have to Get
Ready” to the Feb. 24, “Working People’s Day of Action Rally” at Foley Square.
“I’m not getting ready. I’m already ready,” he says of the odds that the Supreme Court will rule that it’s unconstitutional for public-sector workers who aren’t union members to be required to pay “fair-share fees” to the unions that represent them. About one-fourth of the 24,000 school support staff Local 372 represents are fee-payers. “We’re targeting them too, making sure they get their green cards and fill them out and become full-fledged members,” he says. “It’s all about education.”
While the lawyers representing Illinois state worker Mark Janus argue that the case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, is about his right not to be forced to pay for union activity, the organizations financing his suit have pitched it as a way to “defund and defang” labor unions—and New York State has the highest proportion of union members in the nation.
“The New York City trade-union movement in my view is now the epicenter of defense for working people across this whole country. If the Koch brothers can beat us in New York City, then they’re going to beat us everywhere,” says Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen. “We must hold the line here, and I think we will.”
Ann Toback of the Workmen’s Circle calls it “probably the most intense attack we’ve experienced since our members started organizing in the early 1900s.”
If the Court prohibits “fair-share fees,” will unions’ fate be like those in Wisconsin—where membership declined by one-third after Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 laws choking public-sector collective bargaining—or like Iowa, where after the state enacted a law requiring public-sector unions to win recertification with a majority of all workers, not just the ones who voted, they won in 93% of bargaining units, with barely 2% of workers voting no?
Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 30,000 City University of New York faculty and staff, is optimistic. “There’s been much more time to prepare,” she says. In Wisconsin, she says, unions were caught by surprise, but the PSC began organizing its workers more than two years ago, when it appeared the Supreme Court would issue a similar decision. It’s been asking current members to sign “recommitment cards,” asking fee-payers to join, and having “one-on-one, member-to-member conversations for months and months,” she says. “We are organizing, organizing, organizing, and it’s working.”
Other unions are also organizing internally. District Council 37, which has 125,000 members in the municipal workforce, did its first online membership survey last June, had volunteers visit members homes last summer to discuss the benefits of belonging to the union, and piggybacked that on its campaign against the proposed state constitutional convention last fall. It’s also been expanding its organizing efforts and trying to make connections with social movements.
About 30% of the workers DC 37 represents weren’t paying dues, says treasurer Maf Misbah Uddin, “but because we were alerted on this, the last few years we have been going member to member, agency to agency, department to department.” All 2,400 of the accountants represented by Local 1407, which he heads, are now dues-paying members.
The United Federation of Teachers has been organizing membership teams in every school, to have one-on-one conversations with all the members in their chapter to inform them about the dangers posed by the Janus case and answer their questions about it, knock on members’ doors, and organize workplace actions.
“They’re trying to take away our voice, and the voice of working people,” says New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta. “We are connecting with our members to make sure they know the union is with them, that we have their backs, that this is all about taking away workers’ rights, and that we are 100% about making sure that our members have rights, a voice in the workplace.” To reach fee-payers, he says, “we need to let them know that their lives are better because of the union.”
“It’s important that we let the membership know and the community know that without organized labor being able to head the way to do social-justice issues and fight for civil rights,” says District Council 1707 President Kim Medina, “we will swing the pendulum so back to the days of the Depression era, it’s scary.” The union, whose members include day-care and nonprofit workers, is “having borough-wide meetings, we’re going door to door, we’re approaching our members on a one-to-one basis. There’s nothing better than the stories of our own union and how it has impacted our lives.”
“We’re trying to talk to every member we have,” says Mary E. Sullivan, executive vice president of the 300,000-member Civil Service Employees Association. “We are talking to the people who are fee-payers now to ask them to join us and stay with the union.”
The Transport Workers Union is also doing a “massive internal organizing drive,” says Samuelsen. The Supreme Court decision will affect it in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio, where its members run public transit systems.
Several union leaders say that most workers who aren’t union members aren’t “forced riders” dragooned into paying fees by law, but people who just assumed they were already members.“That’s why education is important,” says Shaun François.
At CUNY, says Barbara Bowen, many staff thought they were automatically members because fees were deducted from their paychecks and they went to union rallies. The rate of union membership there is higher among full-time staff than part-timers, who are around less often and have a less solid connection to the university, she adds, but the PSC has gotten “thousands” to opt for full membership.
The city government is supposed to tell unions when new workers are hired, but “lately, they have stopped it,” says Uddin, so DC 37 is demanding that in its next contract.
If the Court outlaws fair-share fees, says Mary Sullivan, “it’s going to affect unions a little bit in the beginning, but we all came from a situation where we didn’t have the provisions of agency fees and we can do it again. We built our unions without it. We will rebuild our unions without it.”
The TWU survived losing dues checkoff after its 2005 strike, Samuelsen notes. He believes the pendulum of history is swinging toward a union revival. “Folks want to join a trade union,” he says. “Corporate America has never been so gluttonous as they are today, and workers recognize that.”
Maf Misbah Uddin sees the specter of Janus as a signal unions must change. “If we just keep asking members to come to the union, it is not going to work any more. Labor leaders have to go to the membership, in the community, in the locality.” If people haven’t joined, he adds, “it is only because we, the leaders, have not been able to convince them, explain to them, and show them the difference between the union member and the nonunion member.”
For Barbara Bowen, it’s a signal to expand the labor movement to represent the entire working class. Unions, she says, “are under attack because our reach is so big—so our reach should be big.”