Organize or Die
Truth-out.org reports; Bracing for Anti-Labor Court Rulings, Unions Double Down on Organizing
The whole public sector will likely become "right to work" next year, barring another miracle at the Supreme Court.
Once the conservative majority rules in Janus v. AFSCME, likely before June, life will change for unions in the 23 states that till now have rejected right-to-work laws. Public sector unions in those states will no longer be able to collect "agency fees" from workers whom they represent but who choose not to join their locals.
Agency fees, charged to non-members to cover the cost of bargaining and representation, are typically at least 90 percent of union dues, and in some cases are equal. But under Janus, non-members will pay nothing.
If that weren't bad enough, in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana, the passage of right to work has been packaged with even more measures to hamstring unions and limit collective bargaining.
The Supreme Court ruling is just "the first of many hits that we are going to take," says Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). "But what we have that Wisconsin didn't have is an opportunity to prepare."
Recognizing the threat for several years now, big national public sector unions such as AFSCME and the National Education Association have thus far focused on convincing agency fee payers to become members. But today, unions realize that current members are also at risk of quitting and that a more ambitious engagement strategy is needed.
Most unions would agree that building stronger connections with members and non-members alike is key to survival. But some locals are building leadership structures inside the workplace that can not only keep member numbers up but also lay the basis for shop floor campaigns -- where members act on their own behalf on the job.
Contract Campaign Dovetails
AFSCME Local 3299, which represents University of California campus and health care employees, is a good model.
The 22,000-member local is preparing for Janus at the same time that it launches a contract fight. That way workers are encouraged not just to join the union but to use it to actively fight management.
The union settled its previous contract in 2013 after multiple short strikes, and used that momentum to prepare for a predicted loss of agency fee when the Supreme Court heard the Friedrichs case. (That Janus predecessor became deadlocked in the Court when Justice Scalia died last year.)
During that campaign, the local built up Member Action Teams (committees in each workplace with an ideal ratio of 1:10) and signed up 4,000 agency fee payers as members. The MATs have now turned to signing up existing members on commitment cards. Their goal is 90 percent.
This time around, the local also waged a six-month campaign for a membership vote to increase dues from 1.5 to 2 percent, knowing that after Janus it will have to spend more money on full-time and part-time organizers.
In Massachusetts, MTA launched its "All In" campaign this fall not just to hang on to members but to develop record levels of activism in the union.
The union is fresh off last year's big victory against a ballot initiative that would have expanded charter schools in the state. The new campaign will deploy 10 organizers for 15 months to work with locals and train them on identifying leaders and having organizing conversations.
MTA is offering resources and support to locals that want to participate in the campaign. While the campaign includes signing up new members, "it has to go beyond card signing and just talking at someone about why it matters to be in a union," says Madeloni. Local leaders are enlisted to "find things members care about and develop a plan [to win them]. That has to be a key part of what we are training people to do."
"You can't put it up on your webpage or only put it out in your newsletter," says Maureen Posner, president of the Springfield local. "It's not going to be enough."
In Posner's local, building reps (stewards) at each school are tasked with getting each member to fill out an updated contact form. Reps are encouraged to chart their buildings. "That's a way to test which buildings are organized," says Posner.