Top Public Sector Union Leaders See Gains, New Initiatives, After Janus

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling against public sector unions, has, in union membership terms, turned out to be a dud so far. At least that’s what top leaders of the nation’s four biggest public-sector unions say.

And their added big message is that “unions are vehicles for workers’ voices, not the voices themselves” as Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten put it.

Presidents Weingarten, Lee Saunders of AFSCME and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees, and Vice President Becky Pringle of the National Education Association discussed how to bring that message to workers in an impromptu press conference with the small group of reporters covering the Future of Unions conference, earlier in February.

Overhanging the sessions was that while more than one-third of public-sector workers – Teachers, Fire Fighters, nurses, EMTs and others – are unionized, only 10.5 percent of all workers are union members. That includes just 6.4 percent of private sector workers.

So the radical right, Republicans and big business foes of workers and unions, having trashed private sector unions, trained their sights on the public sector. Their aim, as one top right-wing honcho admitted in 2017, was to kill unions by taking their money away. “Defund the left,” he called it.

Their vehicle was the Janus vs AFSCME District Council 31 lawsuit, a trumped-up case the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year. And the tribunal’s 5-man Republican-named majority, voting on ideological lines, took their bait.

Reversing a 1975 precedent, the justices ruled every state and local public-sector worker in the U.S. – all 6.2 million of them – would be a potential “free rider,” able to use unions’ services without paying one red cent for them, contract or no contract.

But the big public worker unions, and others with public worker members, read the tea leaves and prepared for the court’s decision. The right – whom Pringle called “the forces of evil” -- expected unionists to defect in droves once they didn’t have to pay for services. Wrong.

Not only that, but teachers in particular roared back, supporting the nationwide student-led marches, protests and demands for stricter gun control after the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre of 14 students and three AFT teachers at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Weingarten pointed out.

The educators followed that by being forced into successful strikes for up-to-date textbooks, needed school repairs and reconstruction, more counselors and nurses for students and higher pay for themselves in West Virginia – statewide -- Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and, most recently, Los Angeles, she added.

SEIU stepped up its organizing among “independent contractor” workers, after first getting state legislatures and city councils to pass laws reclassifying those workers as “employees,” who are organizable under labor law, Henry said.

“All over the country, we keep listening and responding to their demands” as well as demands from the union’s own members, she explained. And SEIU jumped in with “technical assistance” to the hundreds of thousands of Google workers who staged a 1-day walkout over their tech firm’s refusal to deal with issues of sexual harassment or worse on the job.

“It’s a matter of seizing opportunity and supporting those workers without undermining others,” Henry added.

SEIU also looks to wider community issues to fuel its organizing efforts. Henry mentioned, as an example, campaigning for enforceable paid sick and family leave as a way to get more people, in and out of the union, into organizing and being organized.

“We have a holistic view” of who needs unionization, Weingarten elaborated. Her union views the independent contractors, including teachers in so-called charter schools, as “contingent workers,” and thus organizable. By law, independent contractors are not.

Saunders said his union started its one-on-one communications with its 1.2 million members two years before the Janus ruling, asking each what they wanted from their union and urging them to get involved. It reached an overwhelming majority and also literally re-signed all those it talked with to union membership cards.

And it didn’t stop there. AFSCME went after new units. “By the end of February, we’ll have collective bargaining rights for all state workers in Nevada,” he predicted. “We’re also looking at specific targets in hospitals and health care.”

Pringle said NEA is working with scholars on how “to understand the uprisings” of the teachers, which started from the bottom up. Union leaders scrambled to catch up.

“It’s definitely different from (traditional) organizing,” especially because the teacher uprisings and forced strikes occurred in “right to work” states, except for Los Angeles, she admitted. Some even legally bar public workers from striking. 

NEA, the nation’s largest union, also must figure out how to “harness the collective power of the millennials.” The key, she said, will “not by telling them” what to do and what issues to concentrate on “but by honoring and respecting their different vision.”

It worked in West Virginia, she said. NEA, the dominant teachers’ union in the right-to-work Mountaineer State, picked up 1,200 members since the forced strike last year. “It’s a ‘yes, and’” approach of “how we can bring the deal home,” Pringle said.

Adjusting to Janus took “disruptive innovation and it’s scary. But it’s also a huge opportunity – and we’re not done.” 


Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Press Associates

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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