Members of the Service Employees International Union hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees at the Richard J. Daley Center on Feb. 26 in Chicago.
Members of the Service Employees International Union hold a rally in support of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees at the Richard J. Daley Center on Feb. 26 in Chicago. - 
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It’s been more than two months since the Supreme Court ruled against public-sector unions in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The decision barred those unions nationwide from collecting mandatory agency fees from nonunion members to pay for union services like collective bargaining and grievance representation that are provided to all employees. The 5-4 ruling — on First Amendment grounds — immediately cut off a significant source of cash for union coffers.

Now that agency fees are gone, a new battle is on for the hearts, minds and wallets of union members. Conservative right-to-work organizations have launched a nationwide campaign to convince public-sector employees to “opt out” — to quit their union and stop paying union dues. Unions are fighting back to keep those members — and their money — on board.

A lot is at stake. According to the latest Labor Department statistics, in 2017, 34 percent of public-sector workers (7.2 million) were union members, compared to just 6.5 percent of private-sector workers (7.6 million). 

A sign on the lawn outside the modest ranch home of Sara Campos in Salem, Oregon, reads: “Proud Union Household.”

Campos, 34, works in communications at a state agency and has been a member of Service Employees International Union Local 503 for 10 years. She’s a former shop steward. Her husband is a union electrician’s apprentice.

“The morning after the Janus decision, there were some folks at my worksite trying to encourage people to opt out of the union,” Campos said, recalling anti-union activists who came out that day. “People all in the same T-shirts holding these big ‘Opt-Out Today’ signs. The pit of my stomach just dropped — working people, trying to encourage other middle-class people to do something that’s not in their best interest.”

Campos met with fellow workers in the weeks that followed, touting union wages and benefits. She also talked up protections against being fired without just cause.

For years, SEIU and other unions representing public employees have known that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court was poised to cut their cash flow from nonunion members by outlawing agency fee collection. To get ready, they ramped up communications, outreach and organizing to get members to stick with the union.

“Unions are anticipating some meaningful decline in dues, and they realize they may not be able to afford as many national staff when those locals engage in collective bargaining,” said Harry Katz, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University. “Local officers are undergoing training to be more directly involved in collective bargaining. That may lead to some revitalization, where there hasn’t been as much communication and active membership involvement.”

That’s been the case for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said General President Harold Schaitberger. The union represents 314,000 workers nationwide. Schaitberger said most locals weren't collecting agency fees from nonmembers even before Janus. But he said the union has been under pressure from opponents since the decision. In Wisconsin, for instance, “a number of cities initially took the position that they were going to force our locals to get our membership to re-sign up. We view that as an attempt to undermine union representation and density.” The union worked with local city leaders to block the effort, he said.

In Oregon and Washington state, the people urging government workers to opt out of their union in the days after the Janus decision included supporters of the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market advocacy group based in Olympia, Washington. It’s part of the nationwide State Policy Network, and one of several conservative organizations that have been campaigning to decrease union membership, dues collection and political clout following Janus.

Max Nelsen, Freedom Foundation director of labor policy, said the group has a $3 million to $4 million annual budget (he declined to name any donors), and that the group has hired dozens of campaign workers since the spring to do mailings, social media outreach and door-to-door visits with public employees on the West Coast.

Max Nelsen, the director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation.
Max Nelsen, the director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation. - 

Reaching those employees is crucial, Nelsen said, because their unions have “a financial interest in making sure that people don't know about, and don't exercise, their right to stop paying union dues.”

A promotional video the group is distributing online begins with the voice of an 18-year veteran teacher who says: “I never wanted to support the union, but I was forced to as a condition of my employment. They took my money and spent it on causes and agendas I don't agree with.”

The main pitch is to workers’ pocketbooks: You can quit your union, keep your dues and still get union benefits — for free.

Ben Rast is a Washington state safety inspector and Freedom Foundation supporter. He said that until the Janus decision, about $50 was taken out of his paycheck every month to pay the state employees’ union for workplace representation, even though he never joined the union.

“They do provide a service, collective bargaining,” Rast said. “And I'm sure they have been responsible for a good portion of the pay and benefits I now receive. Ultimately, it's not a matter of the money. It all comes down to First Amendment rights.”

Nelsen said that the Freedom Foundation’s outreach effort is now “at maximum capacity.”

But Leanne Kunze, deputy executive director of the 30,000-plus member Washington Federation of State Employees, said that the foundation’s campaign has had little effect so far.

“Ultimately, we know their goal — wanting to defund and defang the labor movement," she said. "But we have made internal and external organizing the No. 1 priority.”

Kunze said that since spring, the union has lost less than 1,000 members, while 770 workers have joined up. Sara Campos’ union in Oregon (SEIU Local 503), meanwhile, told Marketplace that its membership is up — with new members outnumbering quitters 3-to-2.

The Labor Department’s annual report on union membership, which comes out in early 2018, will offer an initial statistical assessment of how public-sector unions nationwide are faring in the wake of Janus.

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Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy