Lawsuit over union fees revitalizes labor groups
The last time someone tried to call a lunchtime union meeting at the Upper Marlboro Parole and Probation office, things didn’t go well. Even with free food.
“Nobody reported to the conference room, because they thought someone was there to sell them insurance,” says Monica Harris, who works there. But she, at least, had made it to an all-day activist training run by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Baltimore.
“A lot of people have lost faith in the union because they haven’t seen anyone,” Harris said to a circle of workers and union staff. “Rightnow, we’re in a place where we need rebuilding. It’s not just about lunch.”
They nodded understandingly. Stories like this are common in Maryland, a state where most local government workplaces are “agency shop,” meaning that every employee must pay fees to the union whether or not they are a full member.
That situation might not last for much longer. The Supreme Court has decided to take a case that could eliminate agency fees for public sector unions, functionally making all of them right-to-work overnight.
“I think that fundamentally this is about weakening unions,” says Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of
the Worker Institute at Cornell University, of the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case. “There’s a recognition among those aligned behind this initiative that whatever the ostensible reasons, their understanding is that unions will suffer.”
As the case looms, public sector unions have embarked on a broad “internal organizing” effort, reaching workers who may have been paying agency fees for years and never had any contact with a union representative.
Several unions, such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, have turned their recruiting efforts inward. But none are as comprehensive as AFSCME, which says it has signed up 140,000 full members since the beginning of last year, in an election-style campaign to shore up its base— with the hope that new members will continue to pay dues in the event they are no longer required.
That means reaching people such as Monica Harris, who works in an office with folks who weren’t always sure where their compulsory fees are going, since the union hadn’t reached out. “We just need to establish that presence,” Harris says. “I’m willing to take the responsibility, I just need some assistance.”
The Friedrichs case has advanced on the labor movement like an unexpected hurricane.
With the help of an anti-union group called the Center for Individual Rights, the case sped through lower courts after last summer’s decision in Harris v. Quinn, which ruled against agency fees in Illinois. The majority opinion essentially invited a new test case on agency fees that would allow conservative justices to overturn the precedent that had sanctioned the fees in the first place, and Friedrichs is the ideal opportunity.
That could have a swift and devastating impact. Right now, 91 percent of government workers covered by collective bargaining contracts nationwide are full members. But that number might fall quickly if people are free to not contribute because a union is obligated to bargain on behalf of everyone in the workplaces they represent, regardless of whether they pay dues.
In past years, unions have faced a steady drumbeat of challenges across the country. The biggest jolt came from Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) took on government employee groups and largely won. After the 2013 passage of a bill that stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights, AFSCME has hemorrhaged two-thirds of its membership in the state.
AFSCME President Lee Saunders acknowledges that the union needed a wake-up call.
“I think we took things for granted,” he says. “We stopped communicating with people because we didn’t feel like we needed to. That was the wrong approach.”
Communicating is hard work. In Maryland, it falls to people such as Andre Powell, who has worked delivering social services in Baltimore for 25 years. He is a union shop steward who takes time off work to visit other offices — something he has done with particular urgency in recent months. “It’s a continuous process, but it takes on a new meaning,” Powell says. “We’re holding our breath, biting our fingernails. We have to grow if these court decisions don’t go our way.”
One Thursday in June, Powell put on a purple shirt and pink tie — more dressed up than he’d usually be for work — and walked into the Family Investment Center in northwest Baltimore. As toddlers ran underfoot, employees greeted him with hugs; Powell is a familiar figure because this office doesn’t have a shop steward.
He set up a table in the cafeteria with AFSCME green keychains, copies of the union’s contract booklet, and a yard sign that declared, “I am not waste, fraud, and abuse!” His first prospect sat at a table and pulled out a plastic container. Powell sidled up to her. “Can I pull up a chair and disturb your lunch?”
Powell then asked whether she was an AFSCME member. “I guess I have to be. They take it out of my check, right?” the woman said. That’s a common view. The agency fee — or “fair-share” fee, as unions like to call it — is calculated to represent only the costs of bargaining the contract, not political activity. In Maryland, that comes out to $14.29, a deduction every pay period, with AFSCME’s name on it.
“The difference between being fee payer and a full-fledged union member is only a dollar 30 cents,” Powell says, after talking thewoman through recent accomplishments, such as beating back Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempt to rescind a promised 2 percent pay increase. He offered fliers for coming protests and a union card, hopefully.
“I’ll take a look,” the woman told him. “Right now, a dollar from my check looks like an awful lot.”
Few people sign up for anything on the spot these days, which is why AFSCME allows them to do so online. Borrowing from political campaign technology, it’s also developed extensive databases on what members and non-members care about, gathered from home visits and other points of contact.
Undeterred, Powell chats with the others — mostly women — who come through, looking for the highlighted names on a list of people at that location who aren’t yet members. Gradually, he finds a few. They talk through issues — low pay, inconsistent management, outdated computer systems— and he makes a case for membership that has nothing to do with the Supreme Court.
“It’s important to convert people into actual members, because it shows the strength of the union,” Powell says. “We can go to the bargaining table with any governor and say, ‘ This is the membership we represent,’ and say we’re speaking for the majority of state employees.”
That’s more and more true lately. When Maryland started allowing public sector unions to collect fairshare fees in 2011, barely more than half of the 20,000 people AFSCME represented were members. Now, 63 percent are members, with 1,000 people signing up since March.
At the end of two hours, the cafeteria empties. Powell bags his recruiting materials and counts the handful of signed cards.
“Okay, so we got some new members,” he says, satisfied. “That’s how it happens, in bits and pieces.”
Back at the union hall, AFSCME’s staff organizers are wrapping up their training, having gone over the union’s history, its role in the state budget fight, and how to reach out to non-members who might have been unimpressed by the union’s past performance. Participants had gone over lists of non-members in their workplaces, coding them by what kind of outreach might be required to win them over.
Toward the end, organizer Ben Forstenzer wants to drive one point home: “Staff involvement in your workplace cannot be the difference. You have to be the difference.”
This training was focused on Maryland’s budget, with activists bent on pushing back against the governor’s plan to impose acrossthe-board funding cuts. But it could pay dividends down the road, even if the Friedrichs case doesn’t take away agency fees — a more engaged membership is better equipped to win battles with management either way.
“Some union leaders believe that institutional difficulty will occur at first, but union resolve may stiffen,” says Lee Adler, who teaches public sector labor law at Cornell University. “They believe that their unions will be required to ‘re-organize’ their already organized members and seek to deepen their political and work-based commitment while explaining why they need to collect dues differently.” In fact, he points out, some union locals in right-towork states have already achieved high membership rates through diligent organizing.
Nationwide, AFSCME is seeing some return on its investment — right-to-work bids have been beaten back in places such as Missouri and West Virginia, and an attempt to take away automatic payroll deductions for union dues was defeated in Texas.
And it depends on making people such as Monica Harris, the skeptical parole officer, feel like part of the effort.
At the end of the training, when participants were asked to tell the group about something they had learned, it seems AFSCME had won a small victory.
“I learned that we are the union,” she said. “I never thought of it like that before.”
American Federation of State, County andMunicipal Employees members go over lists of colleagues’ names as part of recruitment efforts for the labor union inMaryland.