Janus: Don’t Mourn, Organize

JanusI don’t have too much original to say about the disgusting Janus decision today, so I’ll stick to a couple of basics and some personal thoughts.  If you want to read some good articles, check out what Steve Greenhouse is linking to on Facebook or Twitter (@greenhousenyt), or Sharon Block on Twitter (@sharblock)

  1. This wasn’t unexpected. It was pretty much a done deal ever since McConnell stole Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat from Obama and the CheetoHead was sworn in. Nevertheless, it’s kind of like when your elderly parent dies. You knew it was coming, but it’s still a kick in the gut when it actually happens.
  2. A couple of things to clarify for those who don’t follow labor issues much.
    • First, what this is not about is free speech or forcing someone to support candidates or partisan political positions they didn’t want to support. Workers already had the right to not pay dues that went toward political activities.
    • Second, workers who don’t pay dues, still get the benefits of union membership — representation when they’re having problems with management, pay and benefit increases, etc. This is the so-called Free Rider problem. You get what you don’t have to pay for. And if you have a choice to get something by paying for it, or not paying for it, lots of people may decide to get it for free. The unions will be doing the same amount of work with fewer resources, seriously stressing union finances.
  3. What this is really about — pure and simple — is fulfilling the corporate/Republican goal of destroying one of the main financial supports of the Democratic party. (Even POTUS agrees.) As Greenhouse tweets, “The Janus ruling will further skew the campaign finance imbalance favoring corporations. In the 2015-16 election cycle, business outspent labor 16 to 1 in the Presidential, Senate & House elections—$3.4 billion to $213 million—according to the Center for Responsive Politics.”

Now a few personal notes.

I proudly worked for 16 years at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, running the safety and health program of the nation’s largest public employee union. The thing about doing safety and health work for a union is that you spend a lot of time listening to what members do for 8 or 10 or 12 hours every day. And there weren’t many of those jobs that would I have wanted to do

Public employees do some of the hardest, most unpleasant, most thankless jobs that Americans count on to make life in this country livable.  Drive on the road or use public transportation, send your kids to public school, end up in the emergency room, flush your toilet, run from a rabid animal, call a cop, call a fireman — you’re going to be depending on a public employee.  Social workers, mental health institutions, child protective services, corrections officers, air traffic controllers, OSHA inspectors, environmental protection, infectious disease tracking and protection. All public employees.

Most of those jobs are dangerous — often more dangerous than private sector jobs. AFSCME members would drown, suffocate in confined spaces, fall off roofs, get crushed in trenches, get shot or beaten to death, electrocuted, poisoned by chemicals and hit by cars while repairing your roads.  And for all that, public employees in half the states don’t even have a legal right to a safe workplace.

And most states don’t even have the same collective bargaining laws for public employees — the right to join a union or bargain collectively —  that private sector employees have enjoyed for over 80 years.  Yet they proudly do the work and don’t ask for much more than a decent salary, health care, a pension and the right to have their voices heard through a union.  All of that is clearly too much for the current Supreme Court.

The Good News

But it’s not all gloomy. There are some bright spots for unions out there.

More than 90 percent of culinary workers in Nevada who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement voluntarily choose to join the union, despite Nevada’s right-to-work law. Nearly 13 percent of Nevada workers are union members. The union provides not only better pay and benefits, but a successful career ladder program and health and safety protections, like panic buttons for hotel employees.

We recently witnessed tens of thousands of teachers walking off their jobs and winning pay and budget increases in several conservative right-to-work states that had no collective bargaining for public employees.

Last year, Iowa AFSCME and other public employee unions fought back against union-busting laws passed by the Republican legislature and governor. The new law rescinded the Iowa collective bargaining law, limited what unions can bargain over and  required public employees to re-certify their unions with each new contract — which means once every two to three years. To re-certify, a majority of workers in a bargaining unit have to vote in favor of the union, not just the majority of those voting.  What that means is that members not voting count as “no” votes.

Despite the cards stacked against them, Iowa public sector unions won an overwhelming victory in this week’s elections.  436 out of 468 public-sector bargaining units — including 100% of AFSCME-covered units — voted to re-certify their unions. 88 percent of members voted.

The major public employee unions have seen this coming for a while and have been talking to members and increasing their internal organizing activities.

And Noam Sheiber at the New York Times describes unions’ efforts to grow and energize their member in this environment may make the unions smaller, but stronger.

Meanwhile, there are lots of good ideas for how progressive states can help unions can make up for the funds lost — through accounting fixes, providign more access to members or weakening the free rider problem — as Benjamin Sachs and Sharon Block point out.

Finally, when all is bleak, nothing like a good rendition of Solidarity Forever to pick me up. Because when you really think about it, what force on earth really is weaker than the feeble strength of one?

 

Labor Unions Public Employees

3 Comments

  1. How does the union justify spending more money on lobbyist than on safety programs? Why are they letting the safety people go, shutting down the safety training programs that benefit the worker. I was a Teamster for many years and have been disappointed at the directions the unions have taken. Safety training programs and representation used to be key in our union, why eliminate safety programs?

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