By GREGORY N. HEIRES
The anti-union case before the U.S. Supreme Court — Janus v. AFSCME — has led to a lot of soul searching about improving labor’s way of doing business in the future.
A ruling in favor of the plaintiff Mark Janus would allow non-members to receive union services for free without paying dues. This would deliver a tremendous financial blow to public employee unions, undermining their ability to provide services and use their political power to protect the interests of working families.
On March 19, DC 37 hosted a meeting of labor leaders, public officials and academics convened by Public Advocate Letitia James that examined the implications of Janus v. AFSCME, which the right-wing hopes will defund unions and ultimately politically destroy them.
“Let’s look at our own institutions,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the AFL-CIO’s New York City Central Labor Council. “We should be doing what we should have been doing for five decades.”
Alvarez’s remarks reflected the views of many at the conference. Several acknowledged that agency shop led unions to become complacent by guaranteeing a steady stream of income without the need to organize agency-fee payers (non-members who pay dues) and members. Union institutions become focused on services rather than solidifying rank-and-file support.
Preparing for the future
DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido shared how the union is responding to the Janus threat by better engaging members. This “internal organizing” is a key element of Leading the Way, the union’s long-term plan to unite members, improve services and boost the union’s political power.
Under Garrido’s leadership, DC 37 took steps to make the union more dynamic. This process has involved increasing the use of technology, establishing a “war room” where staff and volunteer organizers can discuss mobilizing strategies, enlisting retirees to help strengthen the union by reaching out to members through DC 37’s phone bank, training shop stewards, studying how to improve services, and training workplace leaders.
Over the past couple of years, DC 37 staffers carried out thousands of one-on-one conversations with members about the value of unions. Seventy-eight thousand members signed new membership cards and thousands of agency-fee payers have become members. At 127,000, the membership is at the highest point ever, Garrido said.
“We have to not only educate the workers but also the public,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said.
Many people aren’t aware that unions have provided a “pathway to the middle class” for all Americans, Brewer said. She pointed out that unions have been a driving force behind progressive legislation during the past four decades. Those advancements include equal pay, health and safety laws, civil rights and women’s rights, environmental protection, and improved health care.
“There is a certain imperative here to really reach out to members to tell them what they are going to lose,” sociologist Ruth Milkman said. “Who is going to be affected most? Women and African Americans. They have a high presence in the public sector.”
Opportunities for union growth and action
Garrido said unions should be clear that Janus is ultimately about politics. It marks the culmination of a well-funded 40-year campaign by right-wing interests to kill off unions and wipe out the progressive movement in order to solidify their political and economic power.
The union faithful worry about an exodus of members. But through an education about the value of unions, the impact of an unfavorable ruling in Janus can be limited, according to the conference’s participants.
Donald Nesbit, executive vice president of Board of Education Employees Local 372, said unions need to strengthen their ties with community allies and make elected leaders more aware of the threat of Janus.
“With our membership, there is a sense of entitlement,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association. His remarks reflected how many members believe their benefits — health care and pensions, for example — were gifts of their employer when in fact they came from union action.
Anthony Wells, president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, tries to keep the union message positive and avoid conveying a sense of doomsday.
“We talk about the value of unions,” Wells said. “We don’t have premiums,” which shows the union’s commitment to holding down the cost to members.
With a deepening of the right’s effort to weaken organized labor legally and politically, public employee unions face tough times. Yet it is quite apparent that the attacks have served as a wakeup call for unions and provoked a growing fight back.
“We are going to come out better and stronger in a post-Janus world,” said Garrido, expressing his hope that decades of attacks will lead to a rebirth of the labor movement.
This story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 125,000 municipal workers in New York City.