What will it take for unions to survive Janus?

February 23, 2018

Union members and activists will take part in a day of action on February 24 to focus attention on a Supreme Court case with profound and threatening implications for the labor movement. On February 26, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. If the right-wing majority rules against labor, as is expected, public-sector unions would be barred from collecting "fair share" representation fees from workers who are covered under a union contract, but aren't formally members of the union.

SocialistWorker.org asked three of our longtime contributors to talk about what's at stake with this latest phase of the decades-old attack on unions. Phil Gasper teaches philosophy at Madison Area Technical College and is an activist in Wisconsin. Sean Petty is a pediatric emergency room nurse and member of the board of directors of the New York State Nurses Association. Sherry Wolf is the senior organizer for the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers local at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Sherry: The Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 Supreme Court case is the product of a 40-year campaign by billionaires like the Koch brothers, in cahoots with right-wing politicians, to eviscerate public-sector unions.

As was the case under Obama two years ago before Antonin Scalia died, the U.S. Supreme Court is virtually certain to rule by June of this year that public-sector unions will no longer be allowed to collect "fair share" or representation fees from everyone covered under their contracts, regardless of whether they are union members.

In 23 states--including New York, where I live; New Jersey, where I work; as well as Illinois, California, Massachusetts and many other states--public-sector workers who currently must pay 85 percent or more of membership dues because they benefit from the contracts that unions bargain will no longer have to pay a dime.

This will have the same effect as the so-called "right to work" laws that have prevailed for decades in the U.S. South, where wages are lowest and working conditions are the worst.

Public-sector workers rally to defend their union in Berkeley, California
Public-sector workers rally to defend their union in Berkeley, California

It won't take long for Janus to have a devastating impact on pay and working conditions for educators, as well as health care, transit and other public workers. It will bankrupt some locals, weaken most others and seriously undermine the potential power of the 7.2 million unionized public-sector workers in the United States.

Janus is the culmination of the ruling class's "long game" to destroy workers' most effective means of asserting some control over pay and conditions, which are unions. The case will expose the bankrupt strategies that most union leaders, though not all, have pursued for decades.

Most labor unions are going to have to face some grim truths and shift radically--or perish. It's basically organize-and-fight-or-die time.

Sean: The broader context of this case is the 40-year neoliberal assault on the working class and a radical redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top of society.

The more particular context is the period after the 2008 financial crisis, which led to widespread municipal budget crises that compelled local and state governments--run by both Democrats and Republicans--to intensify the scapegoating of public-sector workers as a justification for budget cuts.

Previously, the public sector was one of the most stable places of employment for working-class people in major metropolitan areas--and also one of the few avenues out of a very unstable private-sector job market at a time when union jobs were moving to the U.S. South and overseas.

That anti-union attack was accompanied by an ideological assault on different public-sector workers. Basically, the claim was that public-sector workers were living high off the hog from their government jobs--that they had "Cadillac" health insurance plans while everyone else was seeing cuts.

This reshaped the narrative of how people viewed public-sector workers. Teachers, for example, were blamed for being responsible for the failing public education system. That was the rhetoric of all kinds of mainstream politicians.

And now, in the Trump era, states and municipalities will face another round of budget crises because of Trump's tax cut law. That will heighten tensions again--and expose some of the contradictory situations that public-sector unions find themselves in regarding their relationships to bosses in the public sector, which are Republican and Democratic Party politicians.

Phil: In Wisconsin, we've definitely had what Sean is talking about over the past seven years.

2011 was when Gov. Scott Walker, newly elected to office, pushed through Act 10. The pretext was a relatively minor budget deficit, but Act 10 was an all-out attack on public-sector unions. It did what the Janus decision threatens to do nationally on a state level in overturning the requirement for public-sector workers to pay representation fees to the unions that bargain their contract.

Act 10 also did a lot of other things that made the situation even worse in Wisconsin. Public-sector unions have to recertify annually in Wisconsin. Not only do you have to win the recertification vote, but you have to win it with a majority of the bargaining unit, which is a very high bar. Act 10 ended automatic dues collection, a further blow to unions.

But the biggest blow was that Act 10 eliminated most collective bargaining. Most issues that previously had been subjects of negotiation are now off the negotiating table.

You can't bargain around pensions or health benefits or safety or hours or sick leave or vacation. The only thing that public-sector unions in Wisconsin can bargain over is wages, and even that is within a very narrow range--unions can negotiate wage increases only up to the rate of inflation. So in real terms, it's a question of how big your pay cut is going to be.

The combination of those attacks has been devastating to public-sector unions and the labor movement in general. And Act 10 was followed by a "right to work" law in Wisconsin that covers the private sector.

Since 2011, we've seen a huge decline in union membership--the fastest of any state. Unions across the board have lost almost 40 percent of their membership in the last seven years.

Before Act 10 passed, Wisconsin was above the national average, with a unionization rate of about 14 or 15 percent. Now, we're down to about 8 percent. Union membership went up a little last year, but it's still very low compared to what it used to be.

In the public sector, AFSCME has lost 70 percent of its membership. The teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, has lost about 50 percent of its membership.

Obviously, this has been a huge blow, and the results are clear in terms of lower wages and lower benefits.

Sherry: And meanwhile, the response of the unions has been stunningly passive. It's been a shock to see that unions are facing such a profound crisis--one that's widely understood to be an existential crisis--and the response is worlds away from what it needs to be.

I work in New Jersey, at the state university at Rutgers, where 20,000 workers are facing a contract battle this year. That's the largest contract fight in the state, which is one of the most unionized states in the country. We do have a fighting union. But nonetheless, you see enormous expectations placed in the new Democratic governor to protect workers from this attack.

Here and in New York and California and other "blue states," people are hoping that state governments will pass legislation that will at least locally safeguard union members from some of the worst impacts of the Janus decision--instead of seeing this as a moment to make our unions relevant to our members and put up a fight.

You would think there would be some kind of a campaign. I grew up in the 1970s, when you would see "look for the union label" ads on television all the time. But today, there hasn't been a campaign pointing out how unions brought you the weekend, for example--or that public-sector workers in nonunion workplaces make 80 percent of what union workers make.

It's not because unions don't see a need to do something. But they're largely caught flat-footed about what to do.

There has been a laser focus on signing up everybody to become a full union member, which of course has to happen. But I believe it's not happening in a way that's likely to produce the most benefits--where we don't just increase numbers, but people understand why they need to stick with their union.

The problem is that after Janus, what Phil described in Wisconsin will happen on a national level. The right wing will pay for a multibillion-dollar ad campaign telling people to give yourself a raise and drop your union membership.

So unions need to prove themselves to workers about why they're valuable--and not only financially, but in other ways, like around race and gender equity issues.

Phil: Wisconsin also illustrates why relying on the Democrats is such a dead-end strategy for the unions.

The initial response to Act 10 when it was proposed was demonstrations that got bigger and bigger, a sick-out by teachers, first in Madison and then statewide for several days, and an occupation of the state Capitol building.

That convinced the Democrats in the state Senate to actually flee the state so they couldn't attend any sessions, and the Republicans wouldn't have a quorum to vote on Act 10. Legislation that everyone thought would pass easily in a legislature dominated by Republicans was delayed.

But instead of trying to build on the sickout and the Capitol occupation with preparations for bigger strike action, the struggle was slowly wound down.

From the start, the union leaders were looking for ways to get back to "politics as usual," with the goal being to force Walker into a recall election. They eventually did gather enough signatures to force a recall vote, but the process took so long that the energy and the enthusiasm that marked the protests at the beginning of 2011 had long since dissipated.

The Democrats ran their version of "neoliberalism lite" as the alternative to Walker and lost, both in 2012 and again in the regular election in 2014.

We've got another governor's election coming this year, and you can't even get the leading Democrats to say that they would reverse Act 10 if they're elected. So they offer very little to working-class voters and union members.

A different strategy is desperately needed. We saw the beginnings of one seven years ago in Wisconsin, and it shows the potential. But that potential dissipated, and the result is that there's huge demoralization now. So the potential has to be rebuilt.

Sean: Phil's example shows clearly the relationship that all unions have to the political establishment, and to the Democratic Party in particular. But there's something unique about how public-sector unions view their relationship to the political establishment--because they have a role in electing their own employers.

That relationship dates back to the resolution of the very tumultuous origins of pubic-sector unionism in the U.S. during the 1960s and '70s.

Socialist Worker had an article about the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike in 1968. That struggle was part of a whole decade of strikes by teachers and municipal workers. In New York, there were titanic battles between the city establishment and AFSCME DC 37, the municipal workers' union, as well as the teachers' union.

The outcome of those struggles was essentially an agreement between the unions and the city that allowed for general improvements in living standards and working conditions, a grievance procedure and like, as long as the militancy ceased. That's why in New York, the unions agreed to the Taylor Law, which makes it illegal for public-sector unions to strike.

That didn't immediately end or prevent public-sector strikes, but it did diminish the militancy of the public-sector labor movement in what was and still is the largest public workforce in the country.

This was the beginning of a very close relationship between public-sector union leaders and city governments--a reliance on the ties that individual unions developed with individual politicians and each successive mayor.

Ultimately, especially in these crisis moments, the maintenance of these relationships comes at the expense of helping to organize rank-and-file struggle on the shop floor that would energize and engage their memberships--and provide a reason for the unions' existences.

I think many people in this country who want to see a resistance reduce what's going on in mainstream politics to a question of the Democrats being cowards who won't stand up for anything. There's a labor movement version of the same idea: that union leaders are just incompetent--or so inexperienced at fighting that they don't know what to do.

That's true on a number of levels. There's an incredible amount of ignorance and incompetence inside the bureaucracy of many unions in this country. But the deeper problem is a very explicit and conscious political strategy of unions connecting their fate to the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, union leaders develop an entire apparatus to remain in power--the teachers' union in New York City is a good example--that is predicated on dissuading rank-and-file organization, because that raises people's expectations above and beyond the parameters of what can be delivered without straining relationships with politicians.

So there's an in-built dynamic to discouraging rank-and-file activity or having a fighting, open bargaining campaign.

All this reinforces the impact that Janus will have on unions. Unless there's a sharp break from both the political strategy of tying labor's fate to the Democrats and the organizational consequences of that strategy within unions in their approach to their own memberships, then Janus will have a devastating effect, even in the strongest areas.

There really has to be a break. Unions are going to have to sacrifice some of these relationships that the leaderships value so much to have a clearer focus on militant rank-and-file struggle. But most of these unions have spent the last 30 years trying to stop that from happening.

I'm in the New York State Nurses Association, where I think we're ahead of a number of other unions in terms of preparing for this. Mostly, that's because of the successes of a rank-and-file reform movement over the past six years or so. But there are still many problems to confront.

As far as what we've done, we started to hold lunch-and-learn workshops inside many of the hospitals across the state and New York City to explain what's happening. Many people had never heard of "right to work" or open shops, so we had to start at a very basic level, talking about what Janus means and the implications for how effective unions can be in organizing to maintain living standards in this city.

We also began to take a more systematic approach toward knowing where people stand on union questions. We had organizers and union reps have one-on-one discussions with most of the membership to find out: What do people think about the union? What do they think is right and what do they think is wrong?

More recently, we developed a strategy to implement what we call "micro-campaigns"--which basically means issue-based campaigns in individual hospital units. The goal was to build union consciousness inside the workplace.

This has started to be more evenly implemented in the last couple months, and as a result, there's a lot of actual rank-and-file organizing going on in the workplace right now, which I think has the potential to grow over the next couple months.

We'll see if this has an impact. I hope that, because of this strategy, we'll be able to lose fewer members. But I think we have to be really sober about the state of rank-and-file confidence and consciousness right now.

A lot of union members have come to rely on the stability of their employment to provide a certain standard of living, where they can maybe send their kids to college and retire with some sort of dignity. But we're a whole generation removed from the struggles that got our public-sector unions to that point.

Plus, in New York City, like elsewhere, since the 2008 economic crisis, the public hospital system has faced cataclysmic budget crises, which produce really horrible staffing conditions. That leads to a lot of criticism about what the union is doing. The lack of ability to mount successful fights around this, even when we tried, rebounds back on the union.

So a lot of union members are really cynical right now. Some of it is justified given the history of unions, but this is also an implicit admission of the lack of rank-and-file organization and consciousness and militancy, which doesn't exist in the same way it used to.

Turning that around will take a range of struggles, with increasingly higher stakes--and people developing much greater expectations of themselves as rank-and-file union members, as well as an understanding of the tactics and tools we need to preserve the public system and regain labor's footing.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as saying the union leadership needs to do the right thing, even though it does. That's still not enough to fully address this current crisis.

Phil: As Sean says, there has to be a revival of rank-and-file activity if unions aren't going to become irrelevant or disappear almost entirely. And we have seen a few examples in Wisconsin which show that, despite all the legal constraints, there are still possibilities for organizing.

For example, last year, faculty assistants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who are essentially low-paid adjunct instructors, launched a fair pay campaign, with six months of rallying their allies, holding protests, and also using the machinery of shared governance on campus to get resolutions passed in their favor.

The upshot was that they got a fairly substantial pay increase--and some of them got reclassified to a higher level, and got an even bigger increase.

These instructors are part of the American Federation of Teachers, but I don't think that their local is the certified bargaining agent. They just went around traditional collective bargaining legal mechanisms and involved the rank and file in a very militant campaign, which worked.

There are a few examples like that, but they're on a pretty small scale. They show the potential, but also how much further there is to go. To replicate that on a much larger scale is going to require a level of struggle that would take us back to the initial protests against Act 10 and the Capitol occupation.

That's definitely possible, but there has to be a lot of hard work done to make that a reality.

Sherry: I completely agree with Sean that this can't simply be reduced to a lack of imagination and vision among union leaders, or their total adherence to the Democratic Party. All of that's true, but we have to grapple with the larger terrain, and the good thing is that there are positives to build on.

Where I work, the issues that have energized members and gotten them to want to be involved in the union have been the fights we've waged--to some degree successfully--around making Rutgers a sanctuary campus for students and faculty and staff who are immigrants.

We mobilized hundreds of people to go to an ICE hearing for one of our students who was threatened with deportation. We got people out to protest against the Muslim ban. We're mobilizing people around International Women's Day, where we'll have the gender and race equity report, around which we have a number of aggressive demands, including pay equity for women and faculty of color.

All of these things excite people, are meaningful to them and will have a real economic impact on their lives--and a real social impact on an institution that serves 70,000 students and employs 30,000 people.

But people who don't have that kind of approach--who see social issues as a luxury that unions can't afford--will rapidly find themselves perceived to be irrelevant by the overwhelming majority of members.

We're in a climate where you want to hold on to members and bargain for your base, so the idea that you would take political positions that could be very controversial to many members also speaks to the need for unions to challenge some of their members who have bought in to backward ideas.

This isn't a new idea--that unions should play leading roles around social justice issues. But that's a part of labor history that's lost on this generation of workers. People don't always see the connection, so we have to make it real to people, and not take anything for granted.

I'm glad to see that there are actions and mobilizations happening on February 24 in many cities. At Rutgers, union members and students are uniting for what we think will be a protest of at least 500 people or more demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage and strong unions--that will come a day before the national mobilization on February 24.

People have to take up the real-life issues that our members are facing. One thing that's an advantage compared to the union movement's wave of radicalism in the 20th century is that our unions are much more diverse. Women are fully half of the workforce, and Black workers are more likely to be unionized, especially in the public sector, than white workers.

We've got to be part of the world we're living in. Initiatives like the Black Lives Matter at Schools week of action taken up by educators recently is exactly the kind of bold thinking and strategy that more unions need to take up.

Sean: Unions need to get serious about a far broader approach to the social crisis in this country--in all its manifestations, whether that's health care or racial justice or the climate crisis or even the mass shootings.

Some unions have taken an outright collaborationist approach on. For example, the building trades unions and others have met with the Trump administration, they've continued to be mouthpieces for the oil and gas industry on climate change, and they've tried to work with employers to shield themselves from attack.

But this strategy has only been effective in helping the employers--in aiding industries to restructure and replace huge swathes of the unionized working class with either machines or lower-paid workers.

If unions are going to survive in this next period, we need to make our actions consistent with a vision of what a completely different society would look like. It would mean an enormous amount if unions united around the fight for Medicare for All or showed their commitment to the slogan Black Lives Matter.

There's still too much of a tendency throughout the labor movement to think of those issues as divisive. A lot of unions still seem to think that their main selling point to members is the services they provide to them. But that model of unionism is obsolete, as is evident from the consistent decline of union membership and power across the country.

If there's anything to be taken away from this moment, it's that progressives and leftists in the labor movement have to start to have these debates in a much bigger way.

While we may be disconnected from the previous generation of union militancy, there has been a massive growth in left-wing consciousness, especially among young people in this country. That can have a positive impact on rebuilding the labor movement on a different basis.

It's up to left-wing activists and forces to have those discussions and help organize the fights that can prove a different perspective in practice.

Transcription by Nicole Colson and Jordan Weinstein

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