When the Supreme Court, in its partisan Janus decision that ignored forty years of precedent, ruled that employees do not have to pay representation fees to public sector unions they do not wish to belong to, analysts worried that the decision would be devastating:
Overturning Abood [the precedent Janus ultimately overturned] would be “a right to a free ride, nothing more, nothing less,” says Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin law professor. “There’s no question that it’ll have a devastating financial effect on public-sector unions, at least in the short tem.”
So far, the results have not been as devastating to labor as those who brought the Janus decision hoped they would be, but unions have taken a hit, with 6% of union fees payers leaving in New York state.
As a long-time member of a public sector union, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, I certainly don’t have all the answers about the challenges public sector unions face, but there are key steps these critical unions can take to thrive in a new legal environment.
It’s All About the Local
While the majority of public sector unions have state and national affiliates, most direct contact between members and their union happens at the local level. And the locals need to be in constant contact with members, letting them know about upcoming meetings, events, and services the union provides its members.
That last point is perhaps the most important. Whether it’s their right to pursue an official grievance or simply to have representation at a meeting with a supervisor, members shouldn’t have to guess or rely on word of mouth to find out how to pursue their collectively bargained rights. In my experience, even teachers with years of experience don’t always understand elements of their contract like the grievance process and new members are often left completely in the dark.
Local leaders need to understand that they are the immediate and most important face of the union. The communication that comes from local leadership needs to be more than a periodic reminder that an election is upcoming or minutes from a meeting held months earlier; it needs to be constant, positive, and engaging.
Engage New Members
The experience of teachers in unions may differ from others, given tenure protections, but it’s critical that unions reach out to–and protect the rights of–new employees. The right-wing groups behind the Janus decision will target these new employees who may not understand what organized labor will do for them, hoping to create a slow erosion of membership.
From their first day of employment, new employees should know that they are protected members of the union who will have the same rights as every other member once they join.
Failing to establish what union membership means for these new employees is the greatest threat to their long-term viability and influence, and any local that treats new members as less deserving of a voice or protection does so at its peril.
Listen to and Empower Members
Locals have a unique ability–and responsibility–to engage members, and the most important first step has to be to listen to the concerns members might have. Not every local has been run well, not every local has effective leadership, and not every local has engaged its members directly. Writing in rethinking schools, Bob Peterson notes that unions across the country are having conversations with their members in a way that hasn’t always happened:
Union leaders from Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, St. Paul, and the state of Massachusetts responded in similar ways. They described how their unions are systematically having small group and one-on-one discussions with all members, and listening to their concerns. Some are incorporating these one-on-ones into upcoming contract negotiations.
Any reform to encourage union membership to not only remain steady but grow needs to start here: with a commitment to listening to the concerns members might have about the state of their union and its role. This might require something that won’t be easy for union leadership: genuinely listening to member concerns without trying to explain them away or dismiss them. Genuine listening, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it generates some conflict in the short-term, will remind members they have a voice that matters.
If too much of the communication is top-down, union leaders can find themselves out-of-touch with the day-to-day concerns of members and members can find themselves simply tuning out a message they don’t feel they had a part in crafting.
Invest Again in Organizing
Professor and union member Amy Livington notes that the security of mandated fees may have encouraged unions to entrench bureaucracy rather than engage and organize members into action.
One criticism of the last fifty years of American unionism is that unions have become too invested in maintaining their own legal and bureaucratic infrastructure at the expense of organizing. The best unions have taken this criticism seriously and, seeing the writing on the wall at the Supreme Court since at least Knox v. SEIU, have committed themselves to re-energizing and reorganizing their members.
Other public sector unions have similarly seized this opportunity to shift their focus, and invigorate members, through widespread internal organizing campaigns. If these efforts are sustained, not only will public sector unions survive, but they will thrive. An organized, energized membership will be poised to win far more at the bargaining table and in the streets than a union with a disorganized membership and hundreds, or even thousands, of fee payers.
The importance of organizing members cannot be overstated. The teachers in Wisconsin may have lost many of the Scott Walker-led reforms, but they sparked a revolution across the country, inspiring teachers in states from West Virginia to Washington to use their collective voices to demand more pay and better working conditions.
The power of unions is the power of the collective voice of members, and that voice can only be heard when it’s organized. As simple as it sounds, local union leaders need to take simple steps like collecting the personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers of members (trust me, it doesn’t always happen) so they can communicate more than meeting agendas and calls to cover for a sick fellow member.
Members will feel—and be—powerful if they are given an avenue for collective action to protect their rights and improve their workplaces. Effective organizing isn’t only important for the potential political change it can create; it’s a critical tool for helping members understand that they are in this together.
The next decade is critical for the labor movement in the United States. We have the potential to reverse some of the devastating corporatist policies passed by the states and federal government and we have the power to spread the message that unions improve the lives of workers and the economy, but we can only reach these goals if public sector unions re-energize their members and give them great reasons to stay rather than just hoping they won’t leave.