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Gov. Cuomo supports labor unions (photo via the Governor's office)

On a recent morning, Pam Stemberg tiptoed toward an open doorway. "My job is to stalk people," she said. 

That's not quite her job. An English professor at City College in Upper Manhattan, Stemberg chases down colleagues in her second role as a union organizer. But her union pitch hasn't emphasized pocketbook issues like wages or benefits; it’s been focused on the threat posed by a Supreme Court case called Janus v. AFSCME, which concerns whether millions of public sector workers nationwide can opt out of the fees imposed by the union that represents them.

On Wednesday, the high court handed down a landmark 5-4 ruling that labor advocates like Stemberg feared and conservative groups sought: public workers can now opt out of union fees and must affirmatively opt in. 

The ruling intensifies a high-stakes recruiting war as public sector unions try to keep workers paying fees, while conservative groups persuade them to opt out or not opt in at all. If a critical mass of workers chooses to stop paying, it could financially cripple public sector unions, hurt their ability to organize and negotiate, and diminish their political contributions, which largely support Democrats. The outcome of the recruiting battle will determine the power of organized labor in New York, the nation’s most unionized state, with ramifications for much of the policy that comes out of Albany and City Hall. 

"It's really a race," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, a union that represents 1.6 million public employees nationwide and has affiliates with over 600,000 public workers and retirees in New York state, during an interview earlier this year. “This is an existential threat.”

At issue in the case were agency fees, payments assessed to workers whether or not they join the union at their job as full-fledged members. The lawyers for Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus argued that such fees violate workers’ free speech rights, since the payments go to support collective bargaining.

Because the salaries of public workers are borne by taxpayers, the bargaining services amount to coerced political speech, the lawyers argued. Unions said the fees are necessary because workers who decline to pay them become freeloaders, benefiting from union services without financially supporting them.

Ultimately, Janus prevailed. The high court’s five conservatives sided with Janus, while its four liberals dissented. Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch, who cast apparently decisive votes on Tuesday in contentious cases concerning abortion and the Trump travel ban, again showed his impact on the court.

Overall union membership in the United States has plummeted for decades, reaching an all-time low of 10.7 percent in 2016, but public-sector union membership nationwide has held steady at a far higher rate of 34.4 percent. That rate is even greater in New York, where two out of every three of the state's 1.4 million public sector workers belong to a union, the highest such rate for any state in the country.

Now that public sector union fees are optional, some workers will likely rescind their payments, reducing union revenues. Consider Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana, where right-to-work laws passed in the last decade have contributed to an average 2.1 percentage point drop in union membership, according to the left-leaning Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

The decision in favor of Janus will result in the eventual loss of 726,000 public sector union members nationwide, a decline of 15.3% in the 22 states that, until now, have required workers to pay union fees, an Illinois Economic Policy Institute report said last month. The study predicts that 136,000 of those lost fee-payers will be in New York, a more than 10-percent drop in the state.

The unions have sought to minimize their potential post-Janus losses by converting fee-payers to full-fledged members, and so retaining their payments, said Shaun Richman, program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College and a former organizing director with the AFT.

“The public sector unions are making sure they ask every single represented worker to join,” he said.

The Professional Staff Congress, or PSC, a union that represents 30,000 faculty and staff in the public university system in New York City, added two full-time organizers to what was a staff of five, said vice president Mike Fabricant. Another 200 union members, including Stemberg, have been talking to coworkers one-on-one about the importance of supporting the union, Fabricant said.

“They’re the lifeblood,” he said. “When a faculty member or staff person makes that argument it has a different gravity than when a PSC organizer does.”  

A year ago, 86 percent of full-time professors represented by PSC were members; now 94 percent are, Fabricant said several weeks ago. The union has also seen an uptick in membership among adjunct professors: 54 percent a year ago has jumped to 62 percent, he added.

In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that helps unions soften the blow of a decision in favor of Janus. The law requires public employers to inform unions of new hires and let them meet with the workers within 30 days; it also allows the unions to deny some services to workers who opt out of paying fees.

But the decision in favor of Janus will intensify right-wing outreach aiming to encourage public workers to opt out of union fees, said Dan DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a professor of political science down the hall from Stemberg, at City College. In recent weeks, the conservative Freedom Foundation has sent mailings to workers on the West Coast about their now newfound opportunity to opt out. In the past, the Freedom Foundation has event sent organizers to knock on workers' doors.

“It’s a communications war,” DiSalvo said.

“The position of Janus is his First Amendment rights are being violated because he’s being forced as a condition of his job to pay into an organization with which he disagrees politically,” DiSalvo said. Conservative groups are “not trying to recruit anyone to become a conservative or anything like that, but to inform people of their rights.”

Richman says such recruitment will eventually reach populous blue states, the union strongholds.

“Nobody should be under any illusions that that’s not going to happen in Illinois, in California, in New York,” Richman said. “You might think they’re going to get punched in the face if they knock on the door to get people out of the union. They’re going to do it anyway.”

If public sector workers decline initial overtures from such groups, the workers can still withdraw from union fees down the road. “This is something that’s going to play out a bit longer than ‘oh, today there are unions; tomorrow there aren’t,’” said Richman.

The political implications could be significant, reducing the power not only of public sector unions but of the liberal politicians they support. “Perhaps there will be a rebalancing of the political playing field in states like California and New York,” said DiSalvo. “There might be a better policy mix.”

At the April signing of a bill to help unions in the event of a ruling in favor of Janus, Cuomo condemned the anticipated decision as an attack on workers.

"Too often, and at the hands of this federal administration, we are seeing the labor movement going backwards,” he said. “In New York it is a different story, and our efforts to protect working men and women are moving labor forward, making the workplace fairer and more just than ever before.

On this issue, Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be in lockstep. "Organized labor brought us the middle class in this country," de Blasio reportedly said on Tuesday when asked about the then-impending Janus decision, adding that the anticipated outcome would be misguided and troublesome.

When the ruling came down on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew issued a statement, saying: “The Janus decision reflects years of scheming by forces desperate to destroy workers' rights and to undermine public education." He added that the teachers union "will remain strong, and we will not be silenced. Everything we have been able to accomplish for our members and our students has come from our ability to work together, and we will continue to fight for the rights of workers, their families and for public education.”

Stemberg said when she talks to coworkers, she focuses on building bonds, hoping that will minimizing any long-term losses. “You’re not only getting them to sign up but to value the union,” she said.

She said the organizing around a Janus decision has been bittersweet.

“I’m so grateful more people are paying attention,” she said. “Did I want it to be this way with Damocles’ sword hanging over our heads? Absolutely not—it’s scary.”

by Max Zahn for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette @MaxZahn_

‘It’s Really a Race’: Supreme Court Ruling Intensifies High-Stakes Battle for Public Workers Wed, 27 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Fallacy of Janus at The Supreme Court uft arthurgold feb

photo: @UFT

The Supreme Court of the United States will shortly rule on the Janus v. AFSCME case. Janus contends that any and all union activity is inherently political, that no one should have to contribute anything to union activity, and that we should therefore become a “right to work” nation. That’s an interesting concept.

My union, the United Federation of Teachers, has a political fund called COPE, and I contribute. I frequently disagree with UFT candidate endorsements and decisions, but I believe it’s important to empower our union. Not all of my friends believe that, but contributions to the political fund are strictly voluntary.

Union does, however, help press for things like higher pay, better working conditions, and increased benefits. We teachers and our union are frequently criticized for those demands. I see our working conditions as student learning conditions. I see our profession as a pathway to the middle class. At least two of my former students are now my colleagues, something I’m proud of. I think it’s our responsibility to leave our profession better for future generations. Of course, others may disagree with what we strive for.

It’s entirely possible there may be a class of teachers who want more work, less pay, and fewer benefits. A ruling for Janus, which would certainly weaken unions, could help achieve that. I’m UFT chapter leader at the largest school in Queens, and I represent Democrats, Republicans, and independents. I’ve never met a single member who wanted more work, less pay, and fewer benefits, but I don’t doubt they may exist. There are over 200,000 UFT members, and I don’t know them all.

Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by the concept that Americans ought not to be compelled to contribute toward political activity that, at least in theory, benefits them. If SCOTUS rules for Janus (and smart money says it will), then this “freedom” ought not to be limited to union activity. For example, like many Americans, I don’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s golf outings. Why, then, is my money covering those trips?

In fact, I don’t really want to pay for Jared and Ivanka in the White House either. I understand Ivanka may not be taking a salary, but I’m sure she incurs expenses -- an office in the White House can’t be cost-free. Why do I need to pay for the space and upkeep? I’d like to opt out of that as well.

It’s entirely conceivable that Donald Trump may start a war to divert attention from the ever-rising tide of scandal that perpetually engulfs him. If he does, I’d rather not pay. If he ever builds that wall, I don’t want to pay for that either. I could go on.

I understand that, under the new Trump tax system, New York will be further picking up the tab for states that levy little or no income tax. Why should New Yorkers have to do that? If other states don’t wish to tax their citizens, it shouldn’t be up to us to build their roads or pay for their services. Maybe, like the union members who want more work for less pay, those states have residents who don’t want roads or services.  They should have the absolute right to live without them, and we ought not to get in their way.

Like a state or country, a union is a group of people who share an interest. Together we try to make things better for our group. We work together to advance our interests, and that’s why we have collective bargaining. I understand that, in a large union and in a democracy, I may not always agree with the direction in which we’re moving, but I have to do my part. And more broadly, I understand, as a citizen, that I have to do my part.

I freely acknowledge that our union may not be adequately representing the interests of teachers who want more work for less pay. I can understand that they may wish to opt out of union dues, even if doing so leaves them with more pay in the short run. (Call me cynical, but, if the SCOTUS ruling goes for Janus, I suspect some people who don’t want more work for less pay will also opt out just to save a few bucks.) The fact is that so-called right to work states have lower pay and fewer benefits, and that could become the norm after Janus.

However, if union activity is inherently political, so is government activity. If people are permitted to opt out of union dues, we ought to also be able to opt out of taxes. As soon as we can do that, I will consider supporting Janus.

But until that happens, everyone who benefits from a union should pay their fair share.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader for Francis Lewis High School. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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The Fallacy of Janus at The Supreme Court Mon, 26 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000