The Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling on union fees was not even a day old when public school teachers in Rochester, New York, received a related email through their work accounts. The subject line read: “New York Union Members Now Have a Choice in Paying Dues.”
The message came from the Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based conservative group that has pushed “right to work” and other anti-union legislation over the years. It steered recipients to an online opt-out form they could use to leave their union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
The email, which AFT shared with HuffPost, is a sign of what faces organized labor as conservative groups around the country work to dry up the revenue streams for public sector unions.
Last week, the Supreme Court ruled against unions in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. The case focused on what are known as “fair share” fees. In the U.S., a union must represent everyone in a particular bargaining unit equally, whether or not they personally join the union. So in states that allowed it, unions have bargained for contracts that require everyone to chip in for the costs of bargaining and representation on employment conditions (although workers were still free not to fund their unions’ political causes).
The Janus ruling made fair share fees illegal in the public sector, on the grounds that they amount to compelled speech and violate a worker’s First Amendment rights. The 5-4 decision issued by the court’s conservative wing gives millions of workers in 22 states the opportunity to stop paying union fees, even though they can continue to enjoy the benefits of a union contract. (Workers in the other 28 states, which have passed so-called right-to-work laws, already had the option to not pay fees.)
The ruling will force unions to spend time and resources trying to retain members they already represent. For many workers, opting out will look like the rational economic decision, even though it will weaken the union’s collective power. Unions fear that as more workers choose to “free ride,” as unions derisively call it, the less effective the unions will become in advocating for workers.
While a very important employment decision, the Janus ruling also has tremendous political implications. Public sector unions are a pillar of the Democratic base; if unions have less money coming in from the people they represent, they will have less influence in state and national politics. Now that Janus has given public sector workers an incentive to ditch their unions, groups on the right intend to find those workers and make sure they know.
Lindsay Killen, a spokeswoman for the Mackinac Center, said the group plans outreach in all 22 affected states, although it will focus on the 11 states “with the highest critical mass of public employees,” including New York and New Jersey. With $10 million earmarked for this year, the campaign will be heavy on online advertising but will also send direct mail and targeted emails to union members. Killen said the group has been able to obtain many workers’ contact information through public records requests.
One of the Mackinac Center’s funders has been a foundation started by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, who have tussled with teachers unions and been major backers of charter schools.
Despite the center’s history as a union foe, Killen insisted that this time it will be sending a neutral message and will not urge workers to opt out. The mission, she said, is “to give employees a choice and let that choice be their own.”
Nonetheless, the email to Rochester union members listed several reasons why a worker should consider bowing out: “Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending, or something else ― you now have the right to stop paying for activities you don’t support.” Teachers in White Plains, New York, received similar emails from the Mackinac Center hours after the Janus ruling, according to the Journal News of New York.
A campaign organized by the Washington state-based Freedom Foundation appears even more robust than the Mackinac Center’s. Bloomberg reported that the libertarian-leaning group plans to hire 80 canvassers to knock on the doors of public sector workers in California, Oregon and Washington, with a goal of fraying union membership by 127,000. It plans to dispatch campaigners to government buildings as well.
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which was founded by conservative megadonor David Koch, is also launching a Janus-inspired campaign. Akash Chougule, the group’s policy director, said it would focus its outreach on states where it has chapters: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico and Alaska. Chougule wouldn’t say how much money the group is devoting to its efforts. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the foundation does not have to disclose its donors.
“We’re not going out there to tell people to leave their union. It’s not our business to tell them whether to be a union member,” Chougule insisted. “We’re simply going to make people aware of this case and what it means for them. They now have the choice to opt out.”
Some unions have already battled such efforts in the past. The Mackinac Center ran an outreach campaign after Michigan passed right-to-work legislation in 2012, and the Freedom Foundation ran one in the wake of a 2014 Supreme Court decision, Harris v. Quinn. That ruling, which was much narrower than last week’s, gave home care and child care workers who are paid through state programs the chance to opt out of paying union fees.
Kim Cook, who was previously president of Service Employees International Union Local 925 in Washington state, said the union was caught off guard by how the Freedom Foundation used “every available tool” to reach SEIU members who were child care workers. As she recalled, the foundation’s primary message was “give yourself a raise, drop your union dues.”
“They sent letters to our members, emails, phone calls. They were going door to door,” Cook said. “They got to people in ways that we hadn’t. We learned that valuable lesson. We had to be in front of that, to let people know what they were going to hear, from who and why.”
This time, unions have had time to prepare. Justice Samuel Alito signaled in the majority decision for Harris v. Quinn that a ruling like Janus was likely to come someday soon. So unions launched member outreach campaigns long before the Janus case was heard, trying to get workers more involved in their unions and committed to staying in them.
When workers can take advantage of union representation without paying anything for it, unions have to repeatedly prove their value to their dues-paying members. The specter of the Janus decision forced unions to look inward and become more responsive to the people they represent.
Since the beginning of this year, AFT has been running “recommitment” campaigns through its local unions around the country. The campaigns seek to touch base with all individual members, talk to them about the importance of being in a union, and get them to sign cards pledging to stay in the union. After the Janus ruling, AFT President Randi Weingarten noted that the union had brought in half-a-million recommitment cards so far. The union has 1.7 million members.
Cook said that the best unions have been preparing for this fight for the last several years ― and that they’ll survive so long as they improve their culture.
“You have to have people feel ownership of their union,” Cook said. “It has to be less transactional and more transformational. … It really has to be a movement organization in which workers have a say.”