‘Company unions’ deepen post-Janus threat to labor

A union supporter carries the California flag at a rally in Capitol Park. (Photo: Karin Hildebrand Lau, via Shutterstock)

You’d be hard pressed to find a more challenging threat to America’s labor movement than the Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision—which overturned 40 years of established legal precedent and the laws of 23 states in forcing public sector unions to represent non-members for free.

The Janus case was always about ideology and money.  Pushed by hyper partisan special interests that are philosophically opposed to the very idea of collective bargaining, the theory behind the case was that finding a way to reduce the number of workers willing to pay for union services would have the added benefit of weakening an important base of financial support for labor-friendly Democrats.

Since the court handed down its 5-4 decision, a myriad of ideas have been floated to try and minimize the damage.

UC Davis Law Professor Aaron Tang has gone ahead and set the standard for bad ideas by framing this as a resource problem.  Tang proposes requiring public employers—not workers—to fund union operations.   Under federal law, such arrangements are already illegal in the private sector.  But Tang is naively calling for public sector unions to surrender their independence from the boss and control of their finances in exchange for enough money to keep their operations afloat.

Unions with the highest rates of member participation win better wages and benefits and more security than either non-unionized workers, or unions with lower levels of participation.

It’s a great idea if your only goal as a union staff member is to keep collecting a paycheck.  Tang’s approach may also appeal to politicians who define “solidarity” in terms of campaign contributions.

But it’s a terrible strategy if you subscribe to the idea that a union only works if it belongs to its members.   Put more bluntly, if the boss controls your bank account, you’re no longer a union.   You are a conflict of interest.

What gives a union power is collective participation—up to and including funding the union’s work of bargaining wages and benefits, grieving disputes, and even its political advocacy.

And participation begins with the hard work of organizing, worker to co-worker.

There’s no real mystery here.  Research shows that unions with the highest rates of member participation win better wages and benefits and more security than either non-unionized workers, or unions with lower levels of participation.

Far from a solution, Tang’s proposal reflects a complacency problem that has been plaguing us for decades.  As union density has declined and so called “right to work” laws have taken hold, some have abandoned organizing to grow power in favor of trying minimize losses.

This is a false choice.

The reason we know is because even as Janus was working its way through the courts, public sector unions like AFSCME were growing—engaging in aggressive organizing drives and converting fee payers into full dues paying members.  And we can do it again.

More recently, we’ve seen teachers in openly anti-union (so called “right to work”) states mount massive protests and strikes to confront substandard wages, deplorable working conditions and destructive austerity measures.  While many of those educators were not paying union dues before these disputes, I have no doubt that many  would do so today having now seen the power of collective action first hand.

While peer to peer organizing must be the foundation of our efforts, policy makers can play a role in shaping in our new Post-Janus order.   They must embrace the intent of our labor laws by investing in more robust enforcement, guaranteeing more workers more opportunities to meet with union representatives, and ensuring they have more protection from outside influences with an ideological or financial motivation to erode their rights on the job.

One thing they should absolutely not do is take ownership of unions away from workers, and give it to the boss.

Ed’s Note: Liz Perlman is the executive director of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents more than 24,000 employees at the University of California’s 10 campuses, five medical centers, numerous clinics, research laboratories and UC Hastings College of the Law. 

  • Richard Graham

    I’d like to encourage Ms. Perlman to think about the country we all live in, and why Forced Unionism is just so un-American it’s simply disgusting. Labor unions need to be true labor unions for-the-workers, not fake labor unions that mostly serve as Far-Left political action committees. Union members deserve better than the status quo, and the recent Janus ruling will go down in history as being a great step forward to repair the broken labor movement. Thank you to Mark Janus and his great legal teams.

  • Aaron Tang

    Hi Liz, thanks for taking the time to engage with my proposal. I actually agree with pretty much everything you’ve said: The most important thing public sector unions can do right now is redouble efforts to engage prospective members and be responsive to member interests. And so the biggest piece of the puzzle is strengthening the hand of union organizers who can explain to new employees just why membership is so critical.

    That is what my proposal–employer reimbursement of union bargaining-related costs–aims to accomplish. The reason Janus makes it harder for unions to organize members is because it makes the cost of joining the union much higher. The cost is no longer just the marginal difference between agency fees and full dues (say, $200 a year), but rather the full cost of dues altogether (say, $800 or $1,000 a year). Convincing workers how important it is to have a voice in their workplace democracy is harder when the price is $1,000 than when it is $200.

    That’s where reimbursement comes in. As my proposal explains, members would still pay full dues up front, and it’s those dues that would fund each union’s ongoing activities. So there is no sense in which the union would be “dependent” on the boss; the union will still make its decisions in the same way it always has, by relying on its internal democracy and listening to the voices of dues-paying members. Then, at the end of each year, state law would require public employers to reimburse unions for their bargaining related expenses (assuming those unions wish to accept such reimbursement). The union would then rebate a pro rata portion of that reimbursement payment back to each member.

    The end result is, I think, a win-win-win. Unions get the same resources they had before Janus to advocate zealously on behalf of workers. Union members only have to pay the political portion of dues because their union has fought for a clause reimbursing the members for their bargaining-related costs. In that sense, my reimbursement proposal is simply union member reimbursement. (Union members also get a federal income tax cut in the process worth roughly $200 for an individual filer earning $50,000 per year). Union organizers are able to make a much more convincing case to prospective members: join and have a voice in your union for the same modest pre-Janus cost. And employers are also in an equivalent situation, as the system can be implemented in a revenue neutral fashion.

    In short, I agree with Liz that a system that makes unions actually ‘dependent’ on employers for their very survival is a terrible idea. That’s why the legislation I’ve proposed would maintain complete union independence. No employer would be able to threaten to unilaterally reduce a reimbursement payment to try and coerce some union concession (just as employers couldn’t unilaterally reduce agency fee payments). Unions would continue to collect full dues, making them accountable to their members–and their members alone. To the extent the “boss” is paying anything in this system, it is writing a check for bargaining expenses that is ultimately sent back to individual workers themselves.

    I would be happy to discuss this with you or anyone further to explain why I am in complete agreement with your objectives and to consider ideas for how best to achieve public sector unions’ critical aims!

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