NEW YORK, N.Y.—The Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 decision June 27 was intended to undermine public-sector unions, ruling that it violates nonmembers’ free-speech rights if they have to pay unions fees to cover the cost of representation. But leaders of New York’s main public-sector unions are maintaining an optimistic attitude, saying they can avert most of the damage by doing internal organizing.
“Our lives will not be decided by a Supreme Court decision, but by the desire of working people to stand up to their employers,” District Council 37 President Henry Garrido told more than 300 people at an emergency rally held less than four hours after the decision was announced.
DC 37, which represents 125,000 city workers, recently had the highest percentage of nonmembers paying “agency fees” of any of the city’s major public-sector unions, according to a 2016 City University of New York study. But it has reduced that number from 28,000 to less than 7,000, Garrido said, and 80,000 people have reaffirmed their membership.
Several unions say they also had been anticipating the decision and organizing accordingly. “For the past three years, we’ve been preparing our members for this day,” says Lester Crockett, president of Region 2 of the Civil Service Employees Association, which covers the New York City metropolitan area. The 300,000-member union has eight workers in its Albany headquarters taking phone calls from workers who want to stay, quit, or are borderline, he adds, and it has its local branches contact the ones who say they’re thinking about leaving.
“Our lives will not be decided by a Supreme Court decision, but by the desire of working people to stand up to their employers. — District Council 37 President Henry Garrido
Less than 4% of the 15,000 workers Region 2 represents are nonmembers, he says.
“We knew this was coming,” says Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Gloria Middleton. The union represents about 8,600 city administrators, and has been trying to educate them for the past two or three years about what they lose by not being in the union, and explaining that the anti-union forces’ “plan is to divide people,” she says. Only 350 workers are still not members.
“Because we were alerted on this, the last few years we have been going member to member, agency to agency, department to department,” DC 37 treasurer Maf Misbah Uddin told LaborPress in February.
DC 37’s new contract will cost the union thousands of dollars to implement, Garrido said. “Is it fair that those individuals who have not signed a union card will take advantage of that without paying their fair share?” he asked. “The Supreme Court just said it was fair.”
“It scares them that union members make $11,000 a year more than nonmembers,” New York State AFL-CIO head Mario Cilento told the crowd. He added that unions in the state gained 75,000 new members last year, and that union-backed legislation such as the $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid family leave benefit all workers.
The city and state governments have taken some steps to protect unions. A state law that went into effect April 1 says that unions no longer have to represent nonmembers in disciplinary proceedings. On June 27, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined 22 other mayors, including Ras Baraka of Newark and Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, in pledging measures such as involving union representatives in orientations for employees and prohibiting supervisors from trying to discourage union organizing drives.
All that still leaves unions with the job of persuading members that it’s worth staying and nonmembers that it’s worth joining. “We have to do a better job of continuing to teach that,” says Crockett.
Paradoxically, that echoes antiunion forces’ argument that if dues are voluntary, unions will have to work harder to attract and retain members. Crockett acknowledges the paradox, but doesn’t disagree: Unions need to “engage more” with their members, he explains. “This is something we should have always been doing.”
“We believe our members are going to stick with the union, because it’s through the union that they have a voice in their working conditions,” says New York State Nurses Association President Jill Furillo. About one-third of its 42,000 members work in the public sector, she adds, and only a “very small number” are fee-payers.
“We are fired up, and we are not going anywhere,” Garrido told the crowd. “You are awakening a sleeping giant.”