The better pay, benefits and rights on the job that ILWU members and other union workers have enjoyed for decades are being challenged this year by a clever plan to weaken unions, called “right to work.”
Supreme Court’s “Janus” case
The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced they will hear a case in 2018 called “Janus versus AFSCME” that seeks to strip public unions of their right to collect dues from everyone covered by a union contract, and impose “right-to-work” rules on all public-sector union members in the United States. A decision harming public employee union members is virtually certain because President Trump recently filled a vacancy on the Supreme Court with Neil Gorsuch, who holds anti-union views and favors big business.
Details about Janus
Mark Janus is a public employee in Illinois who sued his AFSCME union because he objected to paying his small share of fees needed to cover the union’s representation costs that protect his contract, pay, benefits and rights on the job. Janus says he opposes unions so strongly that paying any fees would violate his First Amendment rights. The Janus case has massive support from anti-union business groups.
Key court cases
In 1977, public unions won a Supreme Court decision called “Abood” that affirmed their right to collect dues or “fair share fees” from all workers covered by a union contract. Since that decision, antiunion Presidents – especially Reagan and both Bush’s – appointed more anti-union justices to the court.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court heard a similar case – also backed by big business – on behalf of a California school teacher named Rebecca Friedrichs, who also held strong anti-union views. The court deadlocked on whether she was obligated to pay fees to the teacher’s union by a vote of 4 to 4, because Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly.
Anti-union politicians then blocked President Obama from filling the Scalia vacancy with someone who would respect workers and unions. When President Trump filled the vacancy with Justice Gorsuch, he sent a green light to corporate America that “right-to-work” would soon become the law of the land for public workers, and eventually all union members.
What is “right-to-work”?
“Right-to-work” is a clever scheme designed in the 1930’s by big business to keep unions weak and wages low. It essentially outlaws “union shops” – workplaces covered by a union contract where everyone pays either dues or their “fair share” of fees to cover the cost of representing workers and protecting good pay, benefits and work rules.
Under “right-to-work” rules, union members can no longer vote to require everyone in their workplace to support the union by paying either dues or fair-share fees. Only voluntary contributions are allowed by “right-to-work laws” – and only if each worker provides specific, written authorization. Some “right-to- work” laws already in place in many states require unions to collect separate, signed authorization forms each year from individual workers in order to collect any dues money.
From South to North
For decades, right-to-work laws existed only in Southern States where business owners used them to keep unions weak, wages low and workplaces segregated. Now there are 28 states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, with these laws. If the Supreme Court rules as expected by June, “right-to-work-for-less” will become the law of the land for every public-sector union member.
Designed to frustrate & fail
When the Supreme Court rules on Janus, it won’t just restrict the ability of unions to collect dues or representation fees – it’s likely to also maintain the legal obligation for unions to represent all workers covered by union contracts– even those who don’t pay any dues or “fair share” fees to cover enormous costs of representation and arbitration. This “double-bind” is exactly how corporations behind the Janus case and “right to work” laws hope to frustrate, weaken and bankrupt unions.
Public workers first
The Janus decision will immediately affect public sector union members, but most observers believe corporations behind right-to-work will eventually ask the court to apply the same restrictive principle to all union members, including those with private-sector employers, including longshore, warehouse, industrial and service workers.
Impact on the IBU and beyond
The ILWU represents thousands of public-sector employees, the largest number being public ferry workers in Washington and Alaska who are represented by the ILWU’s Marine Division, the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU). Hundreds more work for the Golden Gate Ferry District and other public employers including Port Police at Locals 65 and 22; Security personnel at Locals 9 and 28; Port pilots at Local 68, and more.
“Public employees are almost half of the IBU membership, so dealing with “right-to-work” is a top priority for our union now,” said newly-elected IBU President Marina Secchitano.
IBU Secretary-Treasurer Terri Mast prepared a memo suggesting a strategy for right-to-work that was distributed to the ILWU International Executive Board meeting that met in San Francisco on December 14-15.
“It’s important that we start to build an internal campaign now to educate all our members,” said Mast, who outlined a member-to-member outreach effort that envisions trainings to conduct “one-on-one” conversations which explain the need to stay strong and sign dues authorization cards.
“The success or failure of this anti-union attack will be determined by what we do this year,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath, “They picked this fight with public workers for 2018, so we have to start educating and training members now in order to come out on top when the court ruling comes down later this year.” McEllrath says it’s too late to stop the Supreme Court from ruling against workers in favor of the right-to-work laws long sought by big business. “That train left the station when Trump was elected President and he appointed Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.”
The best move now for the ILWU and other unions, McEllrath says, is the approach advocated by the IBU’s Terri Mast: a bottom-up, rank-and-file campaign to educate members by conducting thousands of ‘one-on-one’ conversations
“Our goal should be to convince 100% of union members that the only way to protect good contracts and power on the job is by voluntarily paying our union dues each month,” he says.
In December, McEllrath told the International Executive Board that he was directing the ILWU’s Organizing, Education and Communications Departments to help the IBU and other public workers in the ILWU by gearing-up for an educational campaign.
This article in The Dispatcher marks the beginning of a union-wide effort to inform members about the ILWU’s strategy for staying strong despite the “right-to-work” attack. Recent issues of The Dispatcher have also carried information about the looming threat posed by “right-to-work” (see articles in the sidebar) and future issues of The Dispatcher will devote coverage to the ongoing educational campaign.
Education through conversations
The centerpiece of the outreach effort envisioned by the IBU is a rank-and-file educational campaign, based around “one-on-one” conversations between members.
Training volunteer trainers
The IBU is planning to begin with a series of training workshops for rank-and- file leaders who commit to serve as volunteer trainers in their workplaces.
The International Union intends to prioritize the IBU’s large public employee membership in the Washing ton and Alaska ferry systems, plus other ILWU locals with large numbers of public employees.
The IBU training sessions for rank-and-file volunteer trainers would include time for them to work with organization’s elected leaders on a customized outreach plan. The goal is to identify and train enough volunteers to conduct one-on-one conversations with every public worker.
What works – and doesn’t
A review of what other unions have been doing – or not doing – to maintain a high percentage of voluntary dues paying members despite right-to-work laws, shows that programs are succeeding because of three factors:
Keys to success
First, unions have to commit time and resources to support an intensive, member-driven educational campaign. Just passing out flyers or mailing newsletters without personal conversations won’t work. It takes time and effort to talk with each member, but it has proven to be the most effective approach and there are no shortcuts.
Second, unions need to train volunteers how to engage in two-way conversations. The key is to have a real conversation that begins by asking questions, then listening carefully and making workers feel comfortable about sharing their true feelings. Members who want to share criticism or feedback about the union must feel heard and acknowledged – not dismissed or ignored.
Finally, a successful outreach campaign requires local unions to keep careful records that track who has been contacted in what areas, and who has signed a dues pledge card – along with notes of particular concerns that might make a worker hesitate to voluntarily pay dues.
Unions can get stronger
Unions that followed these steps are reporting that most of their co-workers are voluntarily paying dues and keeping their unions strong. Many also say the member-to-member approach has made their locals much stronger because workers are more involved.
High price of failure
On the other hand, there are examples where right-to-work has destroyed unions that failed to involve members, including some in Wisconsin that started too late and didn’t engage honestly and personally with co-workers. Those unions have now collapsed with only a small minority who are voluntarily paying dues to unions that have little or no power.
“Unions that don’t have strong membership support can quickly lose their dues base because of right-to-work laws, which triggers a financial crisis with staff layoffs and fewer financial resources to help members protect the contract – all of which makes joining the union less attractive,” says Mast, who describes that scenario as a “death spiral” that unions must avoid at all cost.
Unions across the country that are successfully using the member-to- member approach to overcome “right-to-work” laws will meet April 6-8 in Chicago at the Labor Notes conference where 2,000 participants will share lessons and experiences. The ILWU will participate in the event and prepare an article on “lessons learned” – along with a report on the ILWU’s own education campaign – that will be published in May issue of The Dispatcher.
Now’s the time to begin
Given what’s at stake, McEllrath says he wants to start the membership education campaign immediately.
“If we want to stay strong and united enough to deal with powerful employers, then we can’t afford any delays in engaging the rank-and-file.”