Rick Karlin, Wednesday, September 6, 2017
The 2018 elections are still more than a year away, but some of New York’s major public employee unions are starting to mobilize – not so much for political candidates, but for their own members.
Rather than setting up the familiar get-out-the-vote operations such as phone banks and door-to-door campaigns, leaders of unions like the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation are working to educate their rank-and-file about the benefits of being in a union, even if it means a weekly paycheck deduction.
That’s because labor experts believe the U.S. Supreme Court, after failing to do so in 2016, may render a decision next year that would ban “agency fees” or the practice in which union members are compelled to pay union dues whether they want to or not.
If mandatory agency fees are outlawed on the federal level, unions ranging from PEF and CSEA to the New York State United Teachers would no longer be able to automatically collect dues from their members.
Instead members would have to affirmatively agree to pay the dues, which are usually a small percentage of their pay.
Without enough dues coming in, large unions could be hard-pressed to maintain their operations, including contract bargaining and political activity that often includes financial support for the campaigns of elected state officials.
Indeed, unions like PEF, CSEA and NYSUT have long enjoyed broad influence in the state Capitol, thanks to their political donations and, even more importantly, their ability to launch get-out-the vote efforts to help candidates who support their cause.
Donations and get-out-the-vote organizing, however, takes money, which comes from dues.
Some unions are already considering budget cuts.
A report earlier this week found that the New York City teachers union — the United Federation of Teachers — was mulling ways to cut its $182 million budget in the event that the Supreme Court decision leads to a ban in agency fees.
They predicted that an adverse decision for them could lead to a 20-30 percent membership loss by teachers who might decide not to pay the fees, which in their case runs about $112 per month.
CSEA officials also believe that a Supreme Court ruling against mandated union dues could lead to a loss of 20 percent of dues-paying members.
PEF officials in 2016 expressed similar fears.
Back then, the Supreme Court was considering the case of a Los Angeles public school teacher who objected to paying the mandatory agency fee to her union.
That case, known as Friedrichs vs California Teachers Association, was before the U.S. Supreme Court when Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative who was expected to vote against the agency fees, died. The court was then deadlocked four to four.
Since then, however, President Donald Trump has appointed another conservative jurist to the bench, Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Another labor case pending before the Supreme Court, Janus vs AFSCME, is expected to be accepted by the Supreme Court this fall, even though a decision probably wouldn’t come until the next spring. In that case, Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, is objecting to paying dues to his union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“We’re picking up where we left off with Friedrichs,” said Dan De Federicis, executive director and counsel for the PBA of New York State.
With time to prepare for a ruling, unions are doing more than scrutinizing their budgets.
“We’re definitely trying to be proactive,” CSEA spokeswoman Emily Cote said. “We’re literally going worksite to worksite and door to door to talk to our members."
They are also asking members what they’d like to see from their union.
Likewise at PEF, spokeswoman Jane Briggs said “all of our work has been under the umbrella of membership engagement.”
Last winter, working with the affiliated American Federation of Teachers, PEF ran a membership engagement “blitz,” speaking one-on-one with members in their workplaces and communities, she said.
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn added that “our main focus is on strengthening the relationship between individuals and their local, state and national unions.” Korn said they’ve also been watching their budgets for some time now.
Cote said educating workers about the advantages of union membership is doubly important in heavily unionized New York in order to guard against taking it for granted.
“We’re fortunate enough to be in a pretty unionized state so our members are sometimes insulated to what is going on in a lot of the other states,” she said. “We’re using it as an opportunity to go back to those grass roots.”
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