The Anti-Union Game Plan

Credit: Laborers Local 79

The open-shop offensive is part of a multipronged plan to ‘defund and defang’ the labor movement. Opt-out canvassers may show up on your doorstep next.

Don’t get the idea that Mark Janus, a child support specialist in Illinois, took his case all the way to the Supreme Court by himself. His lawyers are paid for by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center, the legal arm of a right-wing think tank.

These groups get their money from a whole slew of foundations dedicated to bankrolling anti-worker lawsuits and political candidates. One you might have heard of is the Walton Family Foundation (that’s the Walmart family).

There’s no doubt that the employer class has its act together. Since the Business Roundtable formed in 1972, the think tanks and lobbying groups advancing the employer agenda have proliferated. These people know how to get their talking points out in the press and their bills introduced in statehouses across the country. It helps that they have so much money to throw around.

Here’s one name to learn: the State Policy Network (SPN). It’s a web of 66 corporate-financed “free-market think tanks” spread over all 50 states, financed by corporations and billionaires. And it has a nationally coordinated plan to “defund and defang” the labor movement.

This anti-union plan includes four primary tactics, each designed to whittle away union support. They’re deadliest together.

Here’s what’s coming down the pike:


You know this one. They’ve got most of the low-hanging fruit at this point—the whole public sector, plus the private sector in 27 states (voters in Missouri will decide this fall whether to make it the 28th).

It’s unlikely that SPN affiliates and allies will be able to flip the most union-dense states, such as California or New York, anytime soon.

So the union busters are pursuing local right-to-work ordinances, aimed at paving the way for statewide laws. These have been passed by counties in Kentucky (before it went right-to-work statewide), New Mexico, and Illinois. More are likely to follow.

President Trump has pledged to sign national right-to-work legislation if it gets to his desk.

How unions are coping: That's what the rest of this pamphlet is about.


Public employees in some states, such as Washington, have been subjected to a systematic public relations campaign that uses traditional and social media, home mailings, robocalls, and door-to-door canvassing to push them to resign their union membership.

According to internal SPN documents, “well-run opt-out campaigns can cause public-sector unions to experience 5-20 percent declines in membership.”

Opt-out campaigns hinge on SPN affiliates' getting lists of personal contact information of government employees. These lists are obtained through open records laws, which vary by state.

Different variables determine whether or not the government will hand over the requested information. Sometimes it comes down to a choice by a particular government employee.



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How unions are coping:

In a few blue states, unions are getting laws passed to exclude government-employee contact information from open records requests.

New Jersey did this, and also limited the period when a government employee can drop union membership to a 10-day period beginning on the anniversary of hire. In many states, the opt-out window is the same for all workers, which makes it easier for SPN affiliates to time an opt-out blitz.

Unions have launched campaigns to inoculate members, alerting them to who the SPN affiliates are, who finances them, and what their goals are. SEIU 32BJ in Pennsylvania has been handing out “Union Household—No Soliciting” window clings for members to post on front doors or windows.

Stewards should make members aware that opt-out campaigns are part of a well-funded pro-business effort to weaken their union and cut their pay.


Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida have all passed laws that force unions to expend time and resources to win representation votes by the workforce at regular intervals. If the union loses, it is decertified.

SPN affiliates call this legislation “Worker Voting Rights.” Expect more states to follow.

How unions are coping:

Wisconsin’s 2011 Act 10 was the first law in the country to mandate annual union recertification votes. Many unions folded up shop. But some, such as the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, use recertification as a union-building exercise.

“We have leadership infrastructure in 137 buildings that can run the vote themselves,” said Vice President Amy Mizialko. “We get better at it each year.”

After a similar law passed in Iowa, 99 percent of teacher union locals recertified. Teachers created vote trackers in a shared Google Spreadsheet.

“We were constantly communicating with our team and updating the tracker in real time," said history teacher Nick Convington. "It was a great way to bring reps from all 16 buildings together to hit our goal.”


One more experimental tactic is what SPN calls “Workers’ Choice.”

This legislation goes a step further than right to work. Workers who opt out of the union could also opt out of the collective bargaining agreement and negotiate their own individual employment contracts with the boss. SPN affiliates tout this as a form of “members-only unionism.”

A similar concept appeals to some unionists reluctant to represent freeloaders. New York’s public sector unions recently got a law passed absolving them of the obligation to represent non-members in grievance hearings, though these workers are still covered under the union contract. Florida has a similar law.

But in SPN’s version, the purpose is to fragment unions, who will represent an ever smaller subset of workers while the employer dangles incentives to drop out. For example, an employer might initially offer non-union workers a “merit pay” bonus on top of what union members get. But don’t expect perks to last once the union is a shell.

How unions are coping:

To date, no state has passed SPN’s model legislation, though it has been introduced in Michigan and Missouri. A variation affecting only teachers was adopted in Tennessee in 2011. Now teachers there have to negotiate a contract jointly among three parties: the employer, the union, and a boss-friendly rival organization.

Check out the current issue of In These Times for much more from Labor Notes' Chris Brooks on the billionaires' 50-state anti-union battle plan.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.