In the wake of the Supreme Courtâ€™sÂ JanusÂ decision, a new approach to financing unions called â€śdirect reimbursementâ€ť is gaining traction with Democratic politicians, academics, and evenÂ the New York Times editorial board.
It boils down to this: Rather than public sector workers paying dues, their government employer would pay an equivalent amount directly to the union.
Proponents claim this approach will neutralize the impact of theÂ JanusÂ decision and shore up union budgets.
The idea has legs. New Yorkâ€™s most senior Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried isÂ sponsoring a billÂ to allow public sector unions to negotiate this scheme into their contracts. Hawaii is entertaining a version too.
Backed into a corner and fearful for the future, some unions might jump at this quick fix. Itâ€™s a big mistake.
Thereâ€™s a good reason why such an arrangement would be illegal in the private sector. Federal labor law bars unions from receiving employersâ€™ financial support.
The point of that bar is to keep unions independent and out of the control of the boss. Direct reimbursement would make unions more vulnerable to employer domination.
â€śIt is like a company union,â€ť says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor researcher at Cornell University. â€śWhat the employer gives out, it can take it away.â€ťÂ
Aaron Tang, the law professor at the University of California-Davis whoÂ dreamed up the idea, has a simple remedy to preserve union independenceâ€”guarantee the reimbursements by law, and send any disputes to a third party such as a state labor board.Â
But given the depth of employersâ€™ hostility, the feeble enforcement of existing labor laws, the history of company unionism in the U.S.Â and the fact that state labor boards are often filled with political appointees (just look at the anti-union board stacked by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner), Tangâ€™s proposal is naĂŻve.
It would also leave unions unprepared to collect dues in the event of repeal by a court or legislature.
“Remove the workers”
A law like this would play right into the anti-union talking point that a union is an outside organization, imposed on workers from above.Â
Tangâ€™s proposal treats workers as the problem, not the solution. As he puts it, the policy would work byÂ â€śremoving the workers from the equationâ€ťÂ of union funding. Seriously?
A â€śsolutionâ€ť toÂ JanusÂ that leaves out workers will only reinforce the bad behaviors that got us into this mess in the first place. Too many union leaders react to a weak position by looking for a technical fix or a way to partner up with the boss.
You canâ€™t find a technical fix to an organizing problem.
â€śThis idea is coming from the Democratic Party because they are concerned about union money,â€ť said Bronfenbrenner, â€śnot about workers or building worker power.â€ť
â€śMany unions have lost the understanding that our fight starts in the workplace,â€ť said Cherrene Horazuk, president of AFSCME 3800 in Minneapolis, who supported a resolution at the unionâ€™s national convention opposing the direct reimbursement approach. â€śIf our members know we are fighting for and with them, they’ll know that it is in their interests to be a part of their union.â€ť
Letâ€™s stop looking for shortcuts to survivingÂ Janus, and get down to the hard work of organizing.
This article was originally republished from Labor Notes at In These Times on July 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission.Â
About the Author:Â Chris Brooks is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.