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.” 

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Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Press Associates

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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