How the Public Employee Unions Refused to Die

Teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the State Capitol during a rally for increased education funding in Frankfort. 

When the Supreme Court ruled last June in the Janus case that government employees can’t be required to pay any fees to the unions that bargain for them, the common wisdom was the nation’s public-sector unions would be thrown hugely on the defensive.

Evidently, the leaders of those unions didn’t get the message. To the contrary, they have gone on the offensive. As leaders from the nation’s four largest public-sector unions made clear at a forum last weekend in Washington, not only are their unions seeking to staunch the loss of fee-payers, they’re pushing mightily to add members.  

Saying that Janus was just one step in a 40-year assault on unions, Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said, “One of the most important things, if not the most important thing we should be working toward, is organizing workers. ... That has to be priority No. 1. We will always have to fight defensively against the attacks that confront us, but we should always be organizing new workers into the labor movement.”

Henry, whose two-million-member union is the nation’s second largest, was speaking at Georgetown University on a panel about the future of labor alongside leaders from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest union, as well as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the third largest, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the fourth largest. 

Many experts predicted that the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 Janus decision would cause public-sector unions to lose 10 percent to 30 percent of their membership and revenues. “We didn’t bury our head in the sand. We didn’t run and hide” after Janus, said Lee Saunders, AFSCME’s president. “We accepted the fact that we were under attack, and we took a good look at ourselves. We looked at what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong.”

After a series of strategy sessions, AFSCME set out to re-engage its members and keep membership from falling. “There was a disconnect between the union and some of our members and potential members,” Saunders said. “We relied too much on social media, on Facebook and the iPhone.” The union set a goal of having local union leaders hold one-on-one talks with more than one million members and fee payers. “Nothing takes the place of talking one on one, looking them dead in the eye, but most importantly listening to what they have to say,” Saunders said. As a result of Janus, about 100,000 non-member fee payers have stopped paying union fees to AFSCME, but Saunders said his union has added seven members for every member who quit the union after Janus to avoid paying dues. 

Becky Pringle, vice president of the NEA and heir apparent to head that three-million-member union, said that in light of Janus and the Trump presidency, “We are at a crossroads in this country. We are looking at this as an opportunity to reinvigorate the labor movement.” 

At the NEA as well, Janus led to a rethinking and retrenchment. “We began talking about changing from a service organization [one that serves members by bargaining for them and handling their grievances] to a culture of organizing, getting back to our roots,” Pringle said. “We also took a look at membership. … We had to let them know that the union was a place where they could get their power and feel it is their place.” Pringle noted that the NEA’s membership, instead of falling as many predicted, has actually risen by 4,000 over the past year. 

Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s president, said her union was also seeking to move away from the “service model.” But she said it wasn’t simply a matter of becoming an “organizing” union. Rather, she said the AFT should make clear its focus is bringing a better life to educators and showing the value of belonging to the union. “We were very conscious of the issues of how we become a community inside a union, talking to each other, listening to each other” and “working with the creativity of our members,” Weingarten said. As a result of the Janus decision, the AFT lost 84,600 fee payers, but it added 88,500 new members over the past year, giving it a net gain of 4,900.

Last year’s wave of teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other states helped build a sense of community among teachers. Weingarten said AFT membership in West Virginia rose by 1,200 after the strike there, while the Arizona Education Association added over 2,000 members after the Arizona strike. 

The four union leaders pointed to a surge of activism beyond the teacher strikes. The SEIU’s Henry praised the protests by Somali workers at an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota, the successful strike by 7,700 hotel workers against Marriott, with the inspiring slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough,” and the nationwide walkout by Google employees. (SEIU has offered Google workers with office space where they can meet.) Then there was the Fight for $15 (which SEIU has largely funded), Black Lives Matter, the women’s marches, the #MeToo movement, and the national student protests against guns.

“We are operating at a movement moment right now,” Saunders said. “Labor can be an important component, but we can’t do it alone. We have to have other partners in doing this. You can see something happening. You can see the level of frustration….We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

These four big unions, which have at times had nasty feuds with one another, are working more closely together than ever before – developing common legal strategies to keep the Supreme Court’s conservative majority from further weakening unions, for instance, and coordinating many of their election-year get-out-the-vote efforts.  “The key challenge for all of us,” Henry said, “is, Can we take the deepening relationship in this defensive crisis and turn it to the offense together.” Pointing to all the activism nationwide, Henry added, “I am more hopeful in 2019 than I have been [at any time] in my 35 years in the labor movement.”

Discussing last winter’s strike in West Virginia—the first of the statewide teachers’ strikes—Weingarten said union leaders at first thought there was little chance the teachers would have the audacity to strike. But the teachers were so fed up that they walked out; they were fuming about low pay, the large number of teacher vacancies, and the governor’s offering a measly 1 percent raise while handing out big corporate tax cuts. “What was surprising was the willingness of people to act,” Weingarten said. “There was a spark here that said, ‘Enough is enough.’”

“What we did wrong,” Weingarten added, was “we didn’t actually understand enough that people were willing” to act.  The state’s two teachers’ unions “adjusted and became the infrastructure for people to fight.” While a Facebook page inspired thousands of teachers to act, the unions, for instance, provided sound systems and porta-potties for demonstrations, and spearheaded negotiations with state government leaders.

Weingarten voiced concern that Republican lawmakers in West Virginia now seem to be moving toward retaliating against public school teachers by considering legislation that would, among other things, punish strikers and allow charter schools. “If they actually retaliate, there will be a strike, there will be a long strike,” Weingarten said. “You can’t retaliate against people who acted for righteousness.”

Weingarten said the central question now is “how do we seed, instead of cede,” how do unions plant the seeds for greater power and success, instead of giving ground. 

Pringle said that as unions strive for better wages, improved conditions and greater social justice, “We must talk about race. … We must talk about how this country has not lived up to its promise for people of color.” Teachers, she added, are often underpaid and undervalued because so many are women. “The reality is that 78 percent of our members are women,” said Pringle, who for 28 years taught science to middle school students. “It’s not by mistake that we’re in a profession where we’re not respected for being the professionals we are.” 

She also emphasized the importance of attracting young workers into unions. “We’re recruiting young people at a record rate right now,” she said, adding that unions have to make sure there are opportunities for young people to lead. It was teachers in their twenties and thirties who led the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Pringle noted that when the NEA went from being “a tea and crumpets association” to being a collective bargaining union, that effort was led by an NEA executive director who was just 30 years old.

In remarks that garnered huge applause, Pringle concluded, “This is a battle to reclaim the soul of America. … We are determined to change the narrative around unions. Unions built this country, and we got to start standing up and screaming that everywhere.”