On June 27, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in the case Janus v AFSCME, allowing non-members in union-represented public-sector workplaces to simply refuse to pay dues. In the run up to the decision, critics and allies alike of labor unions predicted an apocalypse for the labor movement. By allowing free riders to simply stop paying dues while receiving services, the ruling threatened to gut public sector unionism.
One year later, it turns out that rumors of the labor movement’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The public sector unions that feared a dues crunch would force them to slash their capacity to organize new members and serve existing ones have rebounded. Private sector unions that operated strong organizing programs under so-called “right-to-work” conditions reached out with technical assistance and moral support. And individual union members rose to the challenge, recommitted to their unions, and brought their fellow workers along.
“Just because big employers got a Supreme Court that would do their bidding doesn’t mean they got their way,” said Rusty Hicks, President of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “The labor movement saw Janus coming from a mile away, we connected, and we prevailed. In workplace after workplace across L.A. county, workers spoke to each other about what they had to gain and what they had to lose. They chose to earn higher wages, to protect their benefits and to keep their workplaces safer. Most importantly, they chose to organize.”
In the months before Janus, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor embarked upon a strategy of doubling down on organizing across public and private sector unions. (Many member unions had already begun this work when the Friedrichs case was before the Supreme Court in 2016; that case deadlocked 4-4 after Justice Scalia’s death.) The LA Fed’s Organizing Institute recruited and trained union members to organize their own workplaces and work in solidarity to organize others. Private sector unions joined public sector organizing campaigns and vice versa. Organizers teamed up to sign membership cards with non-members and to recommit existing members, using every card signing as an opportunity to talk to members about their workplace concerns and involve them in their union whether they had been at their jobs for a month or a decade.
For many union members who joined campaigns, the pre-Janus organizing drives were part of a renewed commitment to building power at work. “The one thing I took into every workplace with me was this,” said Johnnie McDow, a 21-year member of United Association Local 250 and an HVAC specialist inside the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Nobody’s going to advocate for you like you, and you can’t do it alone.” Only a few short years prior, McDow had been known as a thorn in the side of union leadership; after accepting an offer to help negotiate his bargaining unit’s contract and then participating in the Organizing Institute, he led a team that signed up more than 1,000 public sector building trades workers in a single ten-day period.
Media accounts at the time were relatively quiet about how Janus tied together two sides of the Trump coalition-the white nationalism and the business agenda that tries to keep its hands clean of the former. A report co-sponsored by the LA Fed, the Advancement Project-CA and the LA Black Workers Center demonstrated just how much Black workers had to lose from an assault on public sector workers, and set a path in motion to respond.
“Our communities aren’t very segregated by income, and when you hurt our middle-class, you hurt all of us,” said Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, founder of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. “Generations of public service through unionized jobs have allowed families to buy homes and have kept communities together through hard times. By attacking that source of community stability, Janus was a straightforward attack on black life.”
Many individual unions report that by focusing on organizing, they emerged from the threat of Janus with a higher and more engaged membership than ever before. Teamsters Local 2010, representing support staff through the University of California and Cal State systems, started out with membership stuck at around a quarter of the workforce. After serious organizing work that began in response to Friedrichs, they have now more than tripled their membership percentage. Other public sector unions have similar stories.
“Teamsters Local 2010 did not wait to react to the Janus decision.” said Catherine Cobb, President of Teamsters Local 2010. “We worked tirelessly and strategically to organize our members to action, making sure we maintained the integrity of our membership. We were well-aware of the potential for Janus to decimate our ranks, but we mounted a defense by effectively communicating and organizing across the public sector, reminding members of all the hard-fought benefits we have acquired through standing together in our Union. As a result of those efforts, we have maintained nearly 80 percent of our members and our collective voices could not be silenced as we stood together as a unified, working-class front.”
“We are very fortunate and blessed that we did not lose membership but gained members,” said Ana Meni, City of Carson employee and President of AFSCME Local 809. “With every new employee that was hired on, we have maintained 100% union membership. We are also solidifying the support of our existing membership which is why we have 100% new membership cards for our previous existing members. This is not about just retaining our membership, but also propelling our union to the next phase.”