Union de­fec­tions rare de­spite bat­tle

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - NEWS - By Dan Haar dhaar@hearst­medi­act.com

Af­ter 28 years as an ac­count clerk for the city of New Haven, 28 years as a mem­ber in good stand­ing at AFSCME Lo­cal 884, Dolores Robin­son de­cided to stop pay­ing dues.

That’s now her right, af­ter the so-called Janus de­ci­sion by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Pub­lic em­ploy­ees need not pay union dues to keep their jobs un­der the 5-4 rul­ing, and in most states — in­clud­ing Con­necti­cut — they don’t lose priv­i­leges such as help with em­ployer dis­putes.

Robin­son has been an of­fi­cer of the union lo­cal over the years, even serv­ing a term as vice pres­i­dent. But a free $530 a year was too much to pass up.

“I had my mind made up,” she told me.

Then she had a long con­ver­sa­tion with Jody Barr, the new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of AFSCME Coun­cil 4, which rep­re­sents 30,000 state and mu­nic­i­pal em­ploy­ees in Con­necti­cut. She came around.

“I said, ‘What am I do­ing?’ It was wrong. It was just greedy,” said Robin­son, who works at the city po­lice de­part­ment. “If I did this and ev­ery­one else did this ... that’s go­ing to bust our union.”

Robin­son’s story has pretty much held up across the state and the na­tion in the three months since the Janus de­ci­sion. Ob­servers fig­ured pub­lic em­ployee unions would see de­fec­tions rang­ing from a few per­cent in union-friendly states such as Con­necti­cut to a quar­ter or more of all mem­bers in some places as an­tiu­nion groups prod­ded them to drop out.

So far, that hasn’t hap­pened. In Con­necti­cut at least, de­fec­tions amount to a tiny trickle — just a frac­tion of 1 per­cent in most cases.

In fact, sev­eral unions are see­ing sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of peo­ple who were not pre­vi­ously mem­bers sign­ing union cards. Be­fore Janus, those non-mem­bers — known as agency fee pay­ers — had to pay the full dues, typ­i­cally $400 to $700 a year.

As of July 5, the state comp­trol­ler’s of­fice no longer with­holds those fees from non-mem­bers. The unions lose that money un­til they sign up those non-mem­bers, a scram­ble un­der­way now.

Whether more union mem­bers opt out of pay­ing dues as they re­al­ize their rights — as sup­port­ers of the Janus de­ci­sion ex­pect will hap­pen — re­mains to be seen. But for now, la­bor lead­ers re­joice as rank-and-file work­ers such as Robin­son stick by their unions in the tense early months of the post-Janus era.

“It’s show­ing the truth of what a union means to union mem­bers,” said Barr, whose bar­gain­ing units rep­re­sent 30,000 pub­lic em­ploy­ees in Con­necti­cut, split evenly be­tween state and mu­nic­i­pal jobs. “They value the strength and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion that they get in be­ing part of a union.”

In Con­necti­cut at least, de­fec­tions amount to a tiny trickle — just a frac­tion of 1 per­cent in most cases.

Fierce bat­tle­ground

AFSCME Coun­cil 4 and other state em­ployee unions are rapidly cut­ting into the ranks of non-mem­bers, restor­ing dues pay­ments that were cut off from a to­tal of about 7,100 peo­ple, de­pend­ing on the month. Those lost pay­ments would have amounted to about $3.5 mil­lion a year from state em­ploy­ees alone if all of the former agency pay­ers had re­fused to sign union cards.

Unions are see­ing such suc­cess that la­bor lead­ers are claim­ing re­newed strength, spurred by the at­tack the Janus de­ci­sion rep­re­sents.

“This was a move­ment from the right to weaken unions and I think it’s back­fired,” Barr said.

Could it be that the Supreme Court de­ci­sion, feared as a bru­tal blow by union­ists who an­tic­i­pated it for years, is ac­tu­ally help­ing unions by forc­ing them to or­ga­nize smarter and bet­ter?

It’s too soon to reach that con­clu­sion, said Carol Platt Liebau, pres­i­dent of the Yan­kee In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy, a Con­necti­cut group that fa­vored the Janus de­ci­sion and lob­bies for cur­tail­ing pub­lic em­ployee union pow­ers.

The Yan­kee In­sti­tute has reached out to pub­lic em­ploy­ees, let­ting them know they have the right to stop pay­ing dues with­out los­ing priv­i­leges. “Some­times it takes a while for peo­ple to be­come aware of their rights,” said Liebau, who wouldn’t give de­tails about the cam­paign.

She says the unions aren’t let­ting peo­ple know they can quit. As for the low num­bers of de­fec­tions this sum­mer, she said, “Peo­ple have been afraid of os­tracism and other things that will hap­pen to them if they speak out.”

Liebau says she only wants work­ers to act in their own self in­ter­est, what­ever that means to them.

Union lead­ers say work­ers’ self­in­ter­est rests with sol­i­dar­ity, not in in­di­vid­ual mem­bers sav­ing sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars a year as their unions weaken. They say they’re do­ing noth­ing more than of­fer­ing the logic of stick­ing to­gether.

In one ex­am­ple from re­cent weeks, a pub­lic univer­sity em­ployee who was an agency payer point­edly re­fused to sign up as a mem­ber — un­til the union rep­re­sented him in a dis­pute. He didn’t need to pay dues, but quickly did so.

AFSCME Coun­cil 4 has six peo­ple on the task of or­ga­niz­ing ex­ist­ing work­ers and build­ing new data­bases, Barr said. As for the Yan­kee In­sti­tute, he said, “They’re go­ing to spend more money try­ing to tell our mem­bers to opt out than we are go­ing to lose.”

One worker at a time

Here’s how the num­bers are shak­ing out for AFSCME Coun­cil 4: As of the last week of Septem­ber, a grand to­tal of 46 dues-pay­ing union mem­bers had opted out, Barr said. Of those, 18 are state em­ploy­ees and 28 are mu­nic­i­pal — round­ing er­rors of less than one-quar­ter of 1 per­cent of the over­all num­bers.

“I have more than that re­tire from the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion in a month,” Barr said.

Other unions re­port sim­i­larly tiny losses. At SEIU Dis­trict 1199, the health care work­ers, Pres­i­dent David Pickus said he’s lost 30 out of about 7,000 dues-pay­ing mem­bers.

As for sign­ing up former agency pay­ers, AFSCME Coun­cil 4 had a to­tal of 2,050 of those, many of them cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers, Barr said. The good news: Many of them were not op­posed to join­ing; their union cards had sim­ply been lost over the years as they trans­ferred to dif­fer­ent jobs.

Slowly, one worker at a time, AFSCME and the other unions are get­ting those former agency pay­ers to sign new cards. As of last week, Barr said he had 746 in hand and an­other 200 in the works.

He told me about a trip to the Brook­lyn prison out in Wind­ham County, where a group of of­fi­cers had held out. “All 18 said ‘Go pound sand,’ ” he said. So he and three other AFSCME or­ga­niz­ers trekked out there on a Fri­day night in July, be­tween sec­ond and third shifts.

Af­ter 15-minute con­ver­sa­tions — one at a time — “Six­teen of them signed cards,” Barr said.

Mem­ber­ship up

State pay­roll records no longer show the num­ber of non-mem­bers rep­re­sented by bar­gain­ing units be­cause the state isn’t with­hold­ing money. But a look at doc­u­ments for checks dated Fri­day shows a fa­vor­able pic­ture for unions.

In all, there were 45,942 dues­pay­ing mem­bers who paid $1.24 mil­lion in the two-week pay pe­riod. That was up from 44,003 union mem­bers who paid $1.16 mil­lion in a pay pe­riod in April, and state em­ploy­ment has been flat, per­haps down, since then.

Of course, that still leaves as many as 5,000 em­ploy­ees off the dues­pay­ing rolls, whose money was com­ing in be­fore Janus. That’s the group the unions are tar­get­ing for card-sign­ings.

“The non­sense of the Yan­kee In­sti­tute, the Koch Broth­ers, the Ste­fanowskis, is be­ing rec­og­nized for the lies that it is,” said Pickus, at SEIU Dis­trict 1199, re­fer­ring to Bob Ste­fanowski, the anti-union Repub­li­can nom­i­nee for gov­er­nor.

For Dolores Robin­son, re­al­iz­ing her rights un­der Janus wasn’t enough to sway her to quit, even though the sav­ings was more than $500 a year. Whether that holds true as her col­leagues come to re­al­ize they can save big money and not lose priv­i­leges is the heart of the ques­tion.

It’s about com­mu­nity vs. in­di­vid­u­al­ism, the great bat­tle of Amer­ica. The good news is that Janus clearly won’t break the unions, which up­hold the mid­dle class at a time when the share of in­come go­ing to the top 1 per­cent has dou­bled in barely more than a gen­er­a­tion.

“By Jan. 1, we’ll have a re­ally good idea of how much money we lost and what we’re go­ing to lose go­ing for­ward,” Barr said. “It’s not de­sir­able, but let me tell you, the data that we’re get­ting out of this, the struc­ture … is go­ing to be help­ful to us in or­ga­niz­ing our mem­bers and mak­ing them ac­tivist.”

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