There were two public responses in San Diego on Wednesday to the Supreme Court decision striking down the practice of government sector unions charging non-members fees for the services they provide.
At midday unions representing public employees led a rally and press conference in front of the University of California Medical Center in Hillcrest. Nurses, County employees, and supporters denounced the decision in Janus v AFSCME, pledging to step up organizing efforts in the face of what is widely considered a blow to the union movement.
Later in the day, unions piggy-backed protesting the ruling with an already planned action by UNITE HERE Local 30 aimed at calling attention to contract talks currently in progress at multiple hotels owned or managed by Marriott International. Local politicians, including Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher along with San Diego City Council members Chris Ward and Georgette Gomez, joined the effort.
A march through downtown ended at the non-union Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, where union members and supporters staged a sit-in, blocking the driveway to the property. Rallies or marches organized by UNITE HERE were held in seven cities around the country.
There was another event this week less noticed, but I think equally significant for local unions of all flavors, namely the installation of new officers at the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.
Doug Moore, Executive Director of UDW Homecare Providers Union/AFSCME Local 3930, and Brigette Browning, president of UNITE HERE Local 30, took the oath of office as President and Executive Vice President of the “Union of Unions.”
Their ascension to the leadership of the organization is noteworthy because of the diverse composition of their union memberships along with the aggressive and progressive (!) nature of their organizations.
As the leader of a union with public sector membership, Moore has experience in successfully responding to right-wing efforts aimed at weakening organized labor.
From the Orange County Register:
Doug Moore, executive director of the United Domestic Workers, which represents more than a third of California’s homecare workers, including in Orange and Riverside, said his union lost 30,000 fair-share payers statewide after the 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision.
But the United Domestic Workers union turbo-charged recruitment and services with focus groups, text messaging and door-to-door canvassers armed with ipads. The union also instituted “tele-town hall meetings” that members can follow on their smart phones and created an app to help caregivers calculate their hours and pay.
The union reminded workers it had successfully fought in court and in the legislature against proposals by Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown to cut the home care program and limit their wages and hours. The UDW effort paid off. Over three years, Moore said, the number of full dues-paying members rose from about 37,000 to about 74,000.
Moore and Browning join Executive Secretary-Treasurer Keith Maddox, originally sent by the national AFL-CIO to clean things up (and decided to stay) in the wake of scandals and questions about management integrity during the tenure of UFCW President Mickey Kasparian at the Labor Council.
Kasparian and a handful of other unions left to form the Working Families Council, which has not fared well in recent months, as affiliated unions have dropped out, and a campaign strategy for the primary elections was near-disastrous.
Despite all the talk of gloom and doom, public employee unions saw the handwriting on the wall long ago as billionaire-financed legal efforts sought ways to weaken their representation of workers.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Wednesday’s ruling in a case brought by Illinois state worker Mark Janus had been foreshadowed by earlier legal battles over “agency fees,” charged by unions to government workers on the local and state levels. The most celebrated case originated in California in 2013 when Rebecca Friedrichs, an Orange County educator, sued the California Teachers Assn. It fizzled in early 2016 when the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the court deadlocked at 4-4.
Even so, the action the Friedrichs case sparked in Sacramento, where Democratic lawmakers hustled to help unions, continued even after the case disappeared. Labor unions knew more challenges were coming and urged the California Legislature to enact laws that would raise the odds that more employees — not just teachers but government workers statewide — would become full dues-paying members.
In 2017, California union leaders successfully lobbied for a new state law requiring government workers, upon being hired, to go through an orientation session with union representatives.
Other legislation is in the works, including
- giving union members “release time” from their jobs so they can recruit other workers to join the union
- shielding union members’ contact information from the public to make it harder for anti-union groups to reach them
- allowing unions to charge non-members who use services such as arbitration or a labor representative to help them through a disciplinary process.
An article at Vox.com by Benjamin Sachs and Sharon Block suggests a number of other paths unions in states with sympathetic lawmakers can take to mitigate the negative effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling, including:
The simplest, and the most effective, move would be for states to change, quite subtly, the accounting system for union dues. Currently, the accounting system works like this: Unions win raises, or wage premiums, for public employees of about 17 percent on average. (That is, unionized public-sector workers make 17 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts.) Agency fees — the fees the Court invalidated in Janus — are a tiny fraction (about 2 percentage points) of the union premium. Employers pay this 2 percent to workers, but require that the employees immediately pay that money back to the union.
The upshot is that, instead of seeing a 17 percent wage premium, unionized workers get something like a 15 percent bump and must pay the 2 percent difference to the union. Because this 2 percent fee passes through employee paychecks on the way from the public employer to the union, however, the Supreme Court concluded workers were being “compelled” to support union speech; that’s the constitutional problem, as the Court sees it…
…The fact that states can make the constitutional problem with agency fees disappear simply by changing the accounting system shows how silly the Janus Court’s constitutional holding really is. But that doesn’t alter the fact that states can save union finances in this straightforward way.
The far right isn’t resting on their laurels in the wake of the Janus ruling.
From Bloomberg News:
Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that millions of public sector workers can stop paying union fees, a group tied to Republican billionaires long opposed to organized labor and its support of the Democratic Party has pledged to build on the landmark ruling to further marginalize employee representation.
The conservative nonprofit Freedom Foundation said that starting Wednesday, it will deploy 80 people to a trio of West Coast union bastions: California, Oregon and its home state of Washington. The canvassers were hired in March and trained this month, according to internal documents reviewed by Bloomberg News. The goal of the multi-pronged campaign is to shrink union ranks in the three states by 127,000 members—and to offer an example for similar efforts targeting unions around the country.
The foundation sent emails to 76,000 teachers in Los Angeles and San Diego in May, urging them to withdraw from their unions. Efforts to inoculate their members by unions representing educators paid off, however, as only 160 filled out the forms on the foundation’s website.
The faux concern of the conservative organizations for the ‘rights’ of workers barely masks their real intentions.
In a 2016 speech to American for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, Freedom Foundation’s then-Oregon Coordinator Anne Marie Gurney said, “Our No. 1 stated focus is to defund the political left,” the Guardian reported. The prior year, Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe authored a fundraising letter touting its “proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions” and addressing “a broken political culture” fueled by union dues.
This attack on unions is part of a larger assault on progressive and liberal policies going back to the New Deal. As Donald Cohen of In The Public Interest says in a recent newsletter:
Contrary to right wing propaganda, public sector unions have for years used the contract bargaining process to solve real problems in cities, states, and school districts. They are one of the few institutions left in our society fighting for fairer, healthier, and better communities. Teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota, have bargained not only on pay and benefits, but also on the needs of their students, like smaller class sizes. In Oregon, the state’s largest unions won paid sick leave for most full-time workers statewide. (See more examples in Strong Unions, Stronger Communities.)
Now it’ll be that much harder to make sure everyone has access to clean water, great public schools, safe transit, and so much more.
There’s no question, the billionaires, large corporations, and rightwing politicians know what they’re doing. This is yet another attack on working people, particularly black workers, who are 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector. It’s also the latest step in a decades-long assault on government that wields privatization, austerity, and deregulation to take power from those who work to pay their bills and put food on the table.
In the final analysis, the ongoing assault on workers rights should compel unions to engage in forms of activism formerly considered outside their comfort zones.
I found a Howard Zinn quote from a decade ago in The Progressive Magazine that seems like an appropriate way to close this column, especially in light of Justice Kennedy decision to retire:
It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.
The distinction between law and justice is ignored by all those Senators–Democrats and Republicans–who solemnly invoke as their highest concern “the rule of law.” The law can be just; it can be unjust. It does not deserve to inherit the ultimate authority of the divine right of the king.
The Constitution gave no rights to working people: no right to work less than twelve hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a great movement which won the eight-hour day, and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social Security, and unemployment insurance.
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