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New Hampshire Republicans Are Using Covid to Ram Through Right-to-Work Legislation

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As fellow Democrats reveled in Donald Trump’s presidential defeat, New Hampshire State Rep. Doug Ley (also president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire) watched the election results with unease. Republicans captured both chambers of the General Court of New Hampshire, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu handily won a third term. 

In New Hampshire, a unified right-wing government is on a collision course with organized labor. And, aided by poor pandemic safety protocols (deterring Democratic officials from the State House), the GOP has its best chance in a generation to remake the Granite State. 

Right-wing interest groups like the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperityhave long pushed for conservative reforms such as so-called education savings accounts, which critics say will divert public funds toward private and religious education. But their true prize?—?and the greatest source of consternation for unions like the American Federation of Teachers?—?is a Senate bill known as SB 61.

SB 61 would make New Hampshire the 29th right-to-work state in the country, creating what Ley calls an ?“entering wedge into the Northeast.”

Right-to-work laws, which originated in the Jim Crow South, prohibit unions from negotiating contracts that require dues from non-union members for the benefits provided by the union?—?in practice choking off union funding. Over the past decade, the laws have expanded into labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. New Hampshire has debated becoming a right-to-work state since former President Reagan took office, but more labor-friendly Republican state officials have resisted.

Legislators like Democratic State Rep. Brian Sullivan say there is now a new extremism in the Republican caucus. The Free State Project—“an effort to basically turn [New Hampshire] into a libertarian island”?—?is part of a larger ideological shift that is, he says, ?“definitely growing.” 

Campaign spending has helped shape the New Hampshire legislature, too. A report in the New Hampshire Union Leader finds political action committees contributed nearly $100,000 to Republican state Senate candidates by exploiting a loophole that allows special interests to make multiple contributions. In this case, every contribution was traced to a single advocacy group, the New England Citizens for Right to Work, and to its out-of-state donors. 

Glenn Brackett, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, says legislators who accepted ?“out-of-state money” should have to answer to the public. “[It was] an abdication of their sworn constitutional duties to the citizens of New Hampshire and their constituents,” Brackett explains. ?“Right to work is not an organic program. … It’s being driven completely by out-of-state special interests, and [people] are accepting basically campaign contributions for their votes.”

New Hampshire also has a requirement for legislators to attend sessions in person, despite the risks posed by Covid-19. That requirement could pave the way for right to work this year, despite past defeats. ?“We have a lot of Democrats that are not going to the general sessions because of concerns about Covid,” according to Democratic State Rep. Dan Toomey. ?“If everything were normal, I wouldn’t be worried about [right to work] at all.” 

House Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Renny Cushing (who has stage four cancer), sued Republican Speaker of the House Sherman Packard over the requirement, alleging Packard violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to make remote accommodations for legislators with serious health risks. But a district court dismissed the suit February 22.

Toomey’s fears appear to be warranted. Other controversial bills have already advanced despite several state lawmakers being unable to cast votes, including anti-choice legislation passed two days after the district court’s ruling. According to the Union Leader, House Republicans also reversed the previous Democratic majority’s positions on education aid, gun control and redistricting that same week. The New Hampshire AFL-CIO has since distributed personal protective equipment in an effort to address the safety concerns of legislators from both parties. 

Montana’s legislature voted down right-to-work legislation March 2, and a similar bill has been reintroduced in the Missouri state legislature, but New Hampshire would become the first right-to-work state in the Northeast?—?with potentially far-reaching consequences. 

“When states like Wisconsin and Michigan went down to right to work, it was a message to the entire country that states that have a long labor tradition can be vulnerable to anti-labor legislation,” Sullivan says. ?“Wisconsin had the first public-sector bargaining law, and now they don’t have one.” 

Although hopeful that unions and legislative allies can stop right to work and other conservative priorities, Ley is preparing for a fight. 

“Labor unions lead the way,” Ley says. ?“The gains that we’re able to make often get transferred to and aid those who are not members of our unions. [This is] a corporate assault on working families and working people across the United States.”

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: C.M. Lewis is an editor of Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania. 


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The Union Bond

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Dave Dell Isola, the son and grandson of union members, grew up grateful for the family-sustaining wages and benefits that organized labor won for working people.

But he never fully grasped the might of solidarity until he and his wife, Barbara, and their two sons lost everything in an apartment fire. Dell Isola’s brothers and sisters in the United Steelworkers (USW) rushed to the couple’s side with financial assistance and other support to help them through the tragedy.

“They had me in tears,” recalled Dell Isola, now vice president of USW Local 12012, which represents hundreds of natural gas and propane industry workers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The union bond is so powerful that corporate interests and their allies across the country desperately want to smash it.

Twenty-seven states already have falsely named right-to-work (RTW) laws on the books, and advocates of these union-busting measures now hope to enact them in New Hampshire and Montana.

In addition, corporations and their allies want to make another effort to ram the legislation through in Missouri, even though angry voters there rejected it by a landslide just a few years ago. And Republican lawmakers in Tennessee want to enshrine their anti-worker law in the state constitution, just to make it more difficult for wiser heads to repeal the legislation one day.

Working people only win fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions when they stand together. Solidarity also gives union members the grit to survive battles like the months-long lockout that Dell Isola and his co-workers at National Grid in Massachusetts endured during their successful fight for a fair contract.

Corporations want to rig the scales in their favor. They push RTW laws so they can divide workers—tear at the union bond—and exploit them more easily.

These laws allow workers to opt out of supporting unions while still reaping the benefits. Unions remain legally bound to represent workers regardless of whether they pay dues.

And just as corporations want, that erodes union activism and starves locals like Dell Isola’s of the resources they need to bargain with strength, enforce contracts, build solidarity and survive labor disputes.

“It snowballs into not being able to represent people,” explained Dell Isola, noting the laws’ corrosive force not only helps employers depress wages but claw back sick time and other benefits earned with the sweat, blood and unity of previous generations of union members. “It’s un-American to expect people to work for you, bargain for you, and not pay them anything.”

Workers call them “right-to-work-for-less” laws. That’s because people in states with RTW legislation earn 3 percent lower wages, on average, than their peers in other parts of the country.

Also, workers in these states are less likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans, but more likely to die in workplace incidents, than their counterparts elsewhere.

Nobody, outside of corporations and conservative groups, wants these laws, Dell Isola said, pointing out that officials in New Hampshire rejected the legislation dozens of times over the years “because of the outrage of the people.”

Yet out-of-state agitators with deep pockets are bankrolling another push, hoping they can dupe the Republican legislature and governor into enacting it.

“They’re trying to weasel their way into the Northeast by starting with New Hampshire,” explained Dell Isola, noting an overwhelming cross-section of voters, local government officials and business owners not only adamantly opposes the bill but resents the outsiders’ efforts to foist it on them.

When Republicans and corporations schemed to enact the legislation in Missouri four years ago, John “Tiny” Powell knew how much he and other workers stood to lose. So he joined a broad-based grassroots movement to overturn the law with a first-of-its-kind referendum.

Powell, vice president of USW Local 169G and an electrician at Mississippi Lime Co. in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., stood at a busy intersection for hours and helped to gather 800 of the signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.

Ultimately, he and other activists delivered an astonishing 310,000 signatures to state election officials—more than three times the number required—and celebrated the coming referendum with a rally so large that the state Capitol “sounded like a hornet’s nest.”

Powell put hundreds of miles on his car as he traveled dusty rural roads and stopped at one house after another to educate voters about the importance of killing RTW through the referendum.

He explained that dues are a small price to pay for the benefits unions provide. And Powell, who takes pride in his local’s bargaining power every time a member can afford to buy a house or welcome a baby, stressed that strong unions mean strong families.

“These companies are not going to give you everything out of the goodness of their hearts,” Powell said. “They start sweating when they see you standing together.”

Just as Missouri voters turned out in force to strike down a law they never wanted, Dell Isola and a large coalition of New Hampshire residents are working hard to defeat the legislation there.

If enacted, he said, many workers simply won’t stand for it.

As soon as employers take steps to dilute union membership, drag down pay and cut corners on safety, he predicted, many will take jobs in Massachusetts or other states. They’ll go where workers still stand together and fight for the wages, benefits and working conditions that sustained Dell Isola’s family for generations.

“My blood’s been in the union a long time,” he said. “I wouldn’t go any other way.”

This blog originally appeared at Our Future on February 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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New Koch Brothers-Funded Super PAC Looks to Capitalize on Janus Decision Ahead of the Election

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On the cusp of the midterm elections, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a right-wing political advocacy organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has endorsed eight GOP House incumbents in the hopes of weakening labor groups’ influence in Washington and ensuring that the AFP’s political agendas remain a priority in Congress.

AFP is a Koch-funded organization whose agenda is in line with other groups—such as Concerned Veterans for America, which is also funded by the Koch brothers—that work against progressive initiatives and protections for labor unions, healthcare reform and any effort to combat climate change, says David Armiak, a researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit watchdog group.

On August 31, AFP endorsed eight GOP House incumbents as its “policy champions”: Peter Roskam (R-Ill. 6th), Dave Brat (R-Va. 7th), Ted Budd (R-N.C. 13th), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio 1st), Will Hurd (R-Texas 23rd), Erik Paulsen (R-Minn. 3rd), Rod Blum (R-Iowa 1st) and David Young (R-Iowa 3rd).

“AFP will fully activate its grassroots infrastructure through phone banks and neighborhood canvassing, as well as deploy targeted digital, mail, and radio advertising” to support these candidates in their upcoming elections, the organization writes in a statement.

While it’s hard to know the specific reason that the AFP singled out these eight GOP incumbents as its “policy champions,” the AFP has “correctly recognized that these are candidates who are vulnerable,” says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist and public affairs professor at Columbia University. According to the nonpartisan election analyst the Cook Political Report, many of them are in toss-up races. In three of the elections, Ill.-06, Iowa-01 and Minn.-03, polls currently lean Democrat.

Armiak says AFP’s newly formed super PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action (AFPA), allows all Koch brother-funded groups to consolidate their spending power into a single political ad-buying powerhouse. This makes it more challenging for an experienced researcher, such as Armiak, to track the money funneling through the Koch brothers’ political network.

“[The groups] are reorganizing their spending filing to make it more complicated,” Armiak says. “It’s a sophisticated network and difficult to figure out and will take a while to study to truly understand how it operates.”

This can be worrisome to progressive interest groups that AFP and Koch brother affiliates typically work against—such as those pushing for healthcare reform and environmental advocacy—because it allows AFP to spend more money against such interest groups with little disclosure of where their funds come from.

Organized labor groups especially may be negatively impacted after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision this June. “[AFP wasn’t] directly involved in the Janus decision but heavily supported it,” Hertel-Fernandez says. The decision means right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from charging non-members fees regarding union services like collective bargaining, now apply to the public sector. This could benefit AFP and its endorsed candidates because it could lessen the financial strength of unions, which will inevitably hurt their lobbying abilities in Washington, according to Hertel-Fernandez.

It’s likely AFP and the Koch brothers are eyeing the Janus decision as an opportunity to use it as justification to support federal right-to-work laws in the private sector, too, Hertel-Fernandez says. AFPA is a new weapon that allows the AFP to spend exorbitant amounts of money to support candidates who will push for private sector right-to-work laws, which are currently applied in 27 states.

As a super PAC, AFPA is not restricted to any donation or spending limits. While it is illegal for a super PAC to coordinate with political candidates, it can spend unlimited amounts to support any candidate it chooses with methods such as advertising and canvassing. Donors to AFPA know that if they want their agendas advanced, they have to keep financially supporting congressmen that have proven to be a strong return on investment by voting on legislation that suits their interests, says Hertel-Fernandez. The eight GOP incumbents AFP has endorsed have historically been aligned with the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideology and political interests.

“To Charles and David Koch, politicians are just actors who are just a means to an end. They are looking for people who will just do what they ask them to,” Hertel-Fernandez says. “They are willing to work with anyone to pursue [their] agenda.”

The Koch brothers and their political network are clearly focused on maintaining influence in Congress. But as we head into the polls today, political analysts and pundits are predicting a blue wave that might just thwart the Koch brothers’ attempt to keep control of the House.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eric Bradach is an editorial intern for In These Times.


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Public workers organize after Supreme Court attacked their unions

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The Supreme Court took a big swing at public worker unions in its Janus decision, which allows workers to demand the benefits of unions without contributing to the costs, essentially forcing their coworkers who are union members to subsidize them. But many unions are rising to the challenge.

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

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.

In Illinois, the Peoria Federation of Teachers is training teachers to be organizers, talking to other teachers about union issues:

We offer extremely good services for our members, but we realized if we don’t shift to an organizing model, we might get decimated,” said Jeff Adkins-Dutro, a Peoria English teacher who also serves as the local union president. “In my opinion, this is really going to strengthen our union.”

The transition requires a change in thinking and a lot of legwork. That’s why teachers like Innis and Grace gave up some of their summer break, taking part in an internship program organized by unions and a community group. They sat through seminars run at their local union hall across from the Illinois River, then hit the pavement to speak with teachers about school funding and whatever else they had on their minds.

Organize, organize, organize.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on October 6, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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In Crosshairs of Right-to-Work, Kentucky Bourbon Makers Go On Strike

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More than 50 workers in Kentucky are on strike due to a contract dispute with Four Roses, a bourbon maker with a distillery in Lawrenceburg and a bottling plant in Cox’s Creek. Workers say Four Roses is attempting to adopt a two-tier system that would reduce the benefits for new employees of the company. Members of three different unions walked off their jobs at these sites on September 7.

The move to establish a two-tier system is especially concerning to union leaders because Kentucky became a “right to work” state in 2017, which means that workers are no longer required to pay union dues. A reduction in benefits would presumably give new Four Roses employees less incentive to support the unions financially, potentially dealing an irreparable blow to the company’s organized labor. Since the law passed, 16,000 workers in Kentucky have opted out of paying their union dues.

The unions on strike are United Food and Commercial Workers 10D, United Food and Commercial Workers 23D and Service Employees International Union/National Conference of Firemen and Oilers.

Jeffrey Royalty is the president of the UFCW Local 10D. He told In These Times that the Four Roses’ two-tier proposal is designed to “short change the next generation.” According to Royalty, “For these corporations, ‘right to work’ really means ‘right to take.’ He added that this system will destroy any organization.”

Royalty’s position was echoed by Tim Morris, the political director of Greater Louisville Central Labor Council. Morris told In These Times that the “whole premise” of two-tier system was to “create a divide in the workforce … cause animosity, drive a wedge and make workers not want to stand up and fight when others are attacked.” Morris emphasized, “The people on strike know that to help future employees, they need to stand up for workers now.”

The strike is occurring at a time when tourists are flocking to the area for this week’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival, an annual gathering that features an event at Four Roses’ distillery. Royalty says support from the community has been “outstanding” and that many people have dropped off food and ponchos to the picketing workers.

Four Roses, which has existed since 1888 and was purchased by Japan’s Kirin Company in 2002, said in a statement regarding the strike, “A claim that we are proposing a ‘two-tier’ sick leave policy that discriminates against new hires is not true. We agree that the new hires would not receive the same sick leave benefits as current employees, but we believe the new hires’ program is better, not worse.”

Kentucky’s Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit launched by unions over the state’s “right to work” law. The unions are arguing that the law was passed in violation of the Kentucky Constitution. The “right to work” law was swiftly passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and not put up for a popular vote. 

“It’s really not ‘right to work,’ it’s a right for employees to not pay their fair share for the costs of union representation,” Irwin Cutler, the attorney arguing the lawsuit, has argued. “What we see here is an effort to destroy unions, to weaken unions.”

Four Roses and the striking workers are slated to resume negotiations on September 21.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.


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Janus Is Here—But Don’t Ring the Death Knell for the Labor Movement

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In a major decision that will impact labor for decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has just declared that all public-sector workers who are represented by a union have a Constitutional right to pay the union nothing for the representation.

The Court overturned its landmark 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted public-sector unions to charge fair-share fees that covered the costs of providing collective bargaining and contract administration to non-members that were represented by the union. Today, in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment prohibits public employee unions from charging a mandatory fee for the costs of representation. Therefore, going forward, all public-sector employees will be under so-called “right to work,” the union-busting legal framework that denies unions the ability to charge workers dues. This decision will directly and indirectly impact how unions are structured, how they engage with their members and objectors, how they organize and educate and how they are funded. But this decision will not destroy, defund or decimate labor.

First off, the Janus decision will only directly impact less than half of the labor movement. This is because the ruling only applies to public-sector workers: federal, state and local government employees. However, federal employees (including postal employees) have long been under so-called “right to work,” so Janus will have minimal direct impact on them. Furthermore, many state and local public-sector workers are already in “right to work” states, so this ruling will have no effect on them. This is not to say that the whole labor movement will not be negatively impacted by a decline in membership among public-sector unions, but it is important to remember that Janus will not place all union members under “right to work.”

It is difficult to predict what effect Janus will have on union membership overall. There is a good chance there will be at least some decline in membership, thanks to the free-rider problem: the likelihood of some workers who are not opposed to the union choosing to pay nothing simply because they can get something for nothing. However, state-level data on the decline of union membership following the passage of state “right to work” laws is not necessarily a good predictor of what will happen after Janus, because most of the state laws are a mixture of anti-worker laws that include “right to work.” For example, in Wisconsin, union membership declined 38 percent  between 2010 (the year prior to the passage of Act 10) and 2016. However, Act 10 contained a host of other provisions, such as the elimination of collective bargaining for public-sector workers.

Following Janus, unions will now have to fight for every union member to ensure they choose to remain members and pay their dues. Right-wing groups of the sort that brought Janus, Friedrichs and other anti-union cases, will mount a nationwide campaign to get members to quit the union. Many labor unions that have not been strong in engaging their membership will have to keep up a constant level of contact and organization to maintain their memberships or risk losing big. They will have to make the case to members why they should stay with the union and pay dues, and they will have to make that case often.

Unions are considering a number of options for getting state laws changed, or changing internal policy, to adjust to Janus. New York passed a law in anticipation of Janus, which other states are considering, that would allow unions to deny or charge for some services, such as grievance representation. Some states are considering laws that would require workers who are not members of the union to pay for representation in grievance procedures. This approach would have the benefit of discouraging free-ridership by not providing the full benefits of membership to those workers who choose not to join. However, it carries the danger of turning unions into pay-for-service organizations that will find themselves turning away workers in their time of need.

Labor law professor Samuel Estreicher has proposed an interesting approach that unions could take that would reduce the rate of possible free-riders, not require legislation, and not require unions to turn away non-paying workers. Estreicher argues that unions should require workers who choose not to pay their union dues to instead donate the money to a 501(c)(3) charity. Unions already permit religious objectors to take this route, and Estreicher suggests expanding the program to any objectors. Since this approach would require all workers to pay an amount equivalent to their dues—but would let them decide if the recipient was the union representing them or a charity—it would separate the true objectors from the free-riders.

The allowance of fair-share fees, in both the public and private sector, was in part intended to promote labor peace, and the imposition of “right to work” may lead to more strikes and labor unrest. The massive teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina have all taken place in “right to work” states, and this commonfact was likely no coincidence. Workers in “right to work” states tend to have lower salaries and fewer benefits. Meanwhile, unions are weaker, possibly because they serve as a moderating force to avoid direct—and often illegal—confrontation. These effects from “right to work” can create an environment where workers’ frustration grows, they have few options to better their situations without direct action, and they organize at a grass-roots level. After Janus, with “right to work” becoming the new rule for all public-sector workers, there may be a break from a long period of U.S. history when strikes have been rare.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.
This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

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Wisconsin bill would ban cities from passing worker-friendly laws

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Wisconsin is considering a bill that would prevent local governments from enacting worker-friendly ordinances relating to overtime, discrimination, benefits, and wages. On Wednesday, the Senate held a public hearing on the GOP-backed bill.

The bill, Senate Bill 634, would prevent local municipalities in Wisconsin from increasing the minimum wage, stop enforcement of licensing regulations stricter than state standards, and prohibit labor peace agreements (in which employers agree to not resist a union’s organizing attempts). The bill also specifically says that no city, village, or town can prohibit an employer from soliciting information on a prospective employee’s salary history, because uniformity on employer rights is a “matter of statewide concern.” Since research shows that women are paid less right out of college compared to male counterparts and there are large racial wage gaps, proponents of these ordinances say that prohibiting employers from asking about salary history could help narrow the pay gap.

Madison City Attorney Mike May told Wisconsin-State Journal in December that the “biggest impact” would be on protected classes under Madison’s Equal Opportunity Ordinance. If the bill became law, May said it would mean that discrimination based on student status, citizenship, and even being a victim of domestic abuse would all be “fair game for discriminatory practices.”

“This bill attacks workers, our rights and our democratic processes,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, testified during the hearing. “This bill is about power, the power to overreach and tell citizens in their own communities that they don’t know what’s best for them.”

Wisconsin state Democratic senators Robert Wirch and Janis Ringhand voiced their opposition to the bill in statements on Wednesday. Both senators focused on how the bill could affect municipalities’ power to pass ordinances pertaining to sexual harassment.

“We need to be expanding avenues for victims of sexual harassment and assault to get justice, and not making it harder,” Wirch stated.

The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill on Wednesday, but it’s still concerning that it’s being considered. Wisconsin Republicans have trifecta control of the state and have been successful in pushing a number of anti-worker bills through the legislature. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is nationally known for his long record of supporting anti-union bills. He signed bills that stripped the majority of Wisconsin’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and made Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, which means workers can decide not to pay fees to unions because the union has to represent them regardless.

The Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Council of Churches, League of Wisconsin Municipalities and some labor unions oppose the bill, according to the Associated Press. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and groups representing various businesses support the bill.

Nick Zavos, government relations officer in Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s office, told Wisconsin State-Journal that the mayor is “deeply concerned about the direction (the legislation) represents,” with particular emphasis on the preempting of local ordinances relating to employment discrimination.

Wisconsin is not an outlier in considering this kind of legislation. As city governments have pushed for better labor standards, states across the country have passed laws to preempt increased protections for workers. At least 15 states have passed 28 preemption laws like this one that cover labor issues such as paid leave, minimum wage, and fair scheduling, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s August 2017 report. As the report notes, historically, preemption laws were used to set minimum statewide standards for workers that local governments couldn’t lower. These recent laws are doing the opposite. 

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.


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How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

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In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.


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SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

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On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

The case ended in a 4-4 deadlock in March 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who had appeared poised to vote against the unions’ interests.

Much like Friedrichs, the Janus case has rocketed through the federal courts. The National Right to Work Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in early June. All briefs will likely be submitted by mid-January 2018, meaning SCOTUS could hold hearings almost exactly a year to the date that the Court last heard the same arguments.

The defendants may argue for procedural delays, which could potentially kick the decision into the following court term in 2018-2019. And it’s possible that in the meantime Justice Anthony Kennedy could die of a heart attack, or Sam Alito could forget to look both ways while crossing First St. and get run over by a bus. And the Democrats might take back the Senate next year, preventing the Trump administration from naming any more conservatives to the Court.

That’s the kind of magical thinking we’re left with, because the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is clearly determined to tilt the power of the country in favor of big business and against unions for at least a generation, and they care little about how just or fair their decisions appear to the public.

“Right to work” laws, currently on the books in 27 states, strip the requirement that union members pay union dues. Unions claim this creates a “free rider” problem, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without contributing a dime. This deprives unions of crucial funding, but also—and this is no small consideration for the right-wing—every union family that drops their membership becomes one less door that union members can knock come election season.

Most national unions have been preparing for this eventuality since the first time the Roberts court took up the issue of public sector union fees in 2014’s Harris Vs. Quinncase. (If you’re keeping score, yes, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have spent three years in a row trying to break the backs of unions).

Much of this preparation has focused on making sure that unions have a shop steward in every department and that every new hire is asked by a living breathing human being to actually join the union. But, as I wrote earlier this month, the bigger threat once workers have the right to evade union fees is the direct mail and phone-banking campaign that is already being run by Koch Brother-funded “think tanks” to encourage workers to drop their union membership and “give yourself a raise.”

As I wrote then, “The slick ‘give yourself a raise’ pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. … But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.”

There is a certain irony in conservatives applying the First Amendment to collective bargaining, a principle that conservative jurists have studiously avoided for two centuries. If every interaction that a union has with the government is a matter of speech, then we have a stronger argument for instituting a Bill of Rights for labor to protect workers and their right to demand fair treatment on the job.

Unions are already oppressively regulated. They are told by the National Labor Relations Board whom they can picket, when they may march and what they might say on a flyer. And they face steep fines if they disobey. Workers are forced to attend endless hours of anti-union presentations before a union election with no right to respond or boycott.

If every interaction the government has with a union is a matter of political speech—as a ruling in favor of Janus would imply—unions must respond by forcefully arguing that the rules of the system have been unfairly holding workers back, violating of our rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.


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Supreme Court takes up case that will devastate public sector unions

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In what is all but certain to be a terrible blow to organized labor, the Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it will hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case seeking to defund public sector unions. The case presents an issue that was recently before the Court, and where the justices split 4-4 along party lines.

Now that Neil Gorsuch occupies the seat that Senate Republicans held open for more than a year until Donald Trump could fill it, he holds the fifth vote to deliver a staggering blow to the union movement.

The issue in Janus involves what are sometimes referred to as “agency fees” or “fair share fees.” As ThinkProgress explained when this issue was last before the Court:

Unions are required by law to bargain on behalf of every worker in a unionized shop, even if those workers opt not to join the union. As such, non-members receive the same higher wages (one study found that workers in unionized shops enjoy a wage premium of nearly 12 percent) and benefits enjoyed by their coworkers who belong to the union.

Absent something else, this arrangement would create a free-rider problem, because individual workers have little incentive to join the union if they know they will get all the benefits of unionizing regardless of whether they reimburse the union for its costs. Eventually, unions risk becoming starved for funds and collapsing, causing the workers once represented by a union to lose the benefits of collective bargaining.

To prevent this free-rider problem, union contracts often include a provision requiring non-members to pay agency fees.

The plaintiff in Janus asks the Supreme Court to declare these agency fees unconstitutional, at least in contracts involving public sector unions, under what can charitably be described as an aggressive reading of the First Amendment. Indeed, prior to his death, even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia sometimes appeared skeptical of the plaintiff’s legal theory (although he did join an opinionthat embraced much of it).

With Gorsuch on the bench, however, there is little suspense regarding how Janus will come down. Unions will almost certainly be severely weakened by this decision. And, as a benefit to the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan majority, that will also weaken a key arm of the Democratic party’s political infrastructure, making it more likely that the Court will remain in Republican hands.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is the Justice Editor for ThinkProgress, and the author of Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.


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