Law­suit over union fees re­vi­tal­izes la­bor groups

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - BY LY­DIA DEPILLIS ly­dia.depillis@wash­post.com

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.”

LY­DIA DEPILLIS/THE WASHINGTON POST

Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, County and­Mu­nic­i­pal Em­ploy­ees mem­bers go over lists of col­leagues’ names as part of re­cruit­ment ef­forts for the la­bor union in­Mary­land.

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