How to Jump-Start a Weak Union to Fight Open-Shop Attacks

Hostile forces are poised to encourage public sector workers to ditch their unions as soon as the Supreme Court rules on the Janus v. AFSCME case in 2018. Photo: Caucus of Working Educators

Hostile forces are poised to encourage public sector workers to ditch their unions as soon as the Supreme Court rules on the Janus v. AFSCME case in 2018. To stave off a big exodus, many unions are asking workers to commit to keep paying dues. If you’re active in your union, leaders may even be asking you to “sell” membership to your co-workers.

But what if you’re caught in a union that hasn’t been doing a good enough job? What if your union doesn’t communicate much with members, or is mostly invisible, or only reaches out to you when there’s a crisis, or doesn’t fight hard for good contracts, or is too cozy with the boss?

Janus v. AFSCME

There's a big and imminent threat facing our unions by next summer. The likely decision in the Janus case at the Supreme Court will eliminate "agency fee" provisions from public sector union contracts. That means disgruntled or ill-informed members may stop paying agency fees or dues and become "free riders" who get representation without taxation, as it were.

The large unions that represent public workers—AFSCME, the Service Employees (SEIU), the two national education unions (AFT and NEA), and the Communications Workers (CWA)—are expecting to take a big hit. These unions are starting to mobilize, mostly through top-down education and outreach campaigns. They're asking members to recommit to paying dues, even when it's no longer mandatory.

Tragically, there are many union locals like this. If the leadership of your union isn’t open, inclusive, and fighting on behalf of your co-workers, this could present a kind of crisis for you. Perhaps when some representative comes around asking you to recommit to the union, you and your co-workers are saying, “Really? Why should we?” You might even be tempted to stop paying dues yourself, as a form of protest.

This is a tough moment, but one also filled with great possibility. If you know that workers are better off with a union, then of course you have to fight to keep the union no matter what. If you’re asked to sign a “Recommitment Card” it makes sense to do that; your frustrations are with the way the union is run, not with being a member, and the only way to change things is to keep organizing.

So let’s consider what you can do to improve the union you’re in, while helping to keep it alive during the “post-Janus” era. Here are some suggestions:

STEP 1: LISTEN

Start by spending a little time with co-workers you trust and whose values you share. Ask them: What kind of union would you like to be a part of? Be very practical.

For example, you might ask: Would you like to hear more from the union officers about what’s happening in bargaining? Would you like to be consulted as our contract is being bargained?

If you take a problem to your steward or grievance rep and they say, “Oh yeah, this isn’t in the contract, there’s nothing we can do about it,” wouldn’t you like to be in a union where they say, “No matter the issue, our union is going to figure out how to do something about it”?

Offer a few examples like that, but mostly listen.

STEP 2: BRAINSTORM GOALS

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Starting with this core, begin to identify other people in your union who you think would be receptive. Think outside the box of those most like you in job title and other characteristics. Make some lists, divide up the contacts among your core group, and go talk with this second circle.

You might approach it along these lines: “It seems a lot of us aren’t too happy with the union, but we also know things will be much harder if people quit because we’ll be even weaker in solving problems at work. We may not feel confident with the current leadership, but we want a strong union. How do we get there?”

Ask co-workers to brainstorm goals, and see how many goals are shared within the workplace.

STEP 3: BUILD A NETWORK

Now take the list of goals that you and your co-workers have generated, and go back out with it. Ask people to look at the list, offer further suggestions, and see if they agree—maybe even turn it into a “Vision for Our Union” and ask them to sign their name to it. Use that document to build a network.

You might say: We think that there’s enough of us who value this type of a union, so we can start taking steps to make our union better. Our goal is to make it good enough so that when Janus rolls around, more of our members will actually want to stay, because they see its value and feel like it’s their union.

STEP 4: TAKE ACTION

The best way to show the value of the union is by getting members directly involved in solving problems in their own worksites. Maybe the problem is an overbearing boss, or crushing workloads, or promised raises that don’t appear, or the fact that no one can take sick days because of understaffing, or anything that enough people consider to be seriously wrong.

You don’t need to wait for permission—just start talking among yourselves about what the problem is, what solutions you’d propose, and how you’re going to work together to bring it to the boss. Even if the issue is minor, and even if you don’t win everything you’re seeking, the victory is the feeling of mutual support and taking action together. This is the real heart of unionism!

Many other union members have had to figure this out before; there are good examples out there (check out Secrets of a Successful Organizer or other Labor Notes books, or contact Labor Notes for the names of organizers in your region who might be able to help).

FAIR WARNING

This approach to bottom-up problem-solving on the job might fly in the face of your union’s way of doing things. Most of our unions have spent decades focused exclusively on collective bargaining and processing grievances. A lot of that work was done by a few “experts,” often behind closed doors, so of course the majority of members don’t feel the union is theirs. In the worst cases, some of our unions don’t even do the minimal job of enforcing contracts. If this doesn’t change, it will be easy for members to quit without a second thought.

But change isn’t easy, and some of your co-workers or union leaders may not see the need for this kind of activism. They might be skeptical or dismissive of your efforts. They might even be hostile and resistant to any change, insisting that “everything’s under control” with no need for new ideas. The best advice is: Stay steady, be patient, keep going in the direction of bottom-up, direct action unionism. It’s the real solution to the Janus threat.

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee. Another resource to help improve your union is the Association for Union Democracy, uniondemocracy.org.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #466. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.