The Day California's Biggest Unions Have Been Dreading Is Here. Are They Ready?
By Kyle Stokes and Jill Replogle
Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory union fees was a massive
blow to public sector unions. But long before the court ruled on Janus v. AFSCME — long before Janus was even a court case — many public-sector unions saw the blow coming.
"It's not going to be a surprise to any of our members or our reps," said Chris Callopy, the executive director of the union representing Long Beach Unified School District teachers. "We've been talking about this problem for years now."
The question is whether, even with all that lead time, unions are ready for what happens next.
HELP ME UNDERSTAND THE RULING
In California, most of the 1.4 million public employees who hold jobs covered by a union contract ultimately join their union. But about 5.8 percent don't, often over disagreements with their union's politics or because the dues are expensive. Yet even so, the union's contract still protects them.
Unions say this is essentially "free riding." In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The court allowed unions to collect "fair share" fees from non-members, which cover some of the union's "non-political" expenses, such as for negotiating the labor contract that protects them.
But to Ryan Yohn, a Westminster middle school teacher who had sued the California Teachers Association in a case similar to Janus, collective bargaining itself is political — and he suspects the money is paying for more than just union operating costs.
"There's always been a dark cloud," Yohn said, "related to how the union was able to take my money and spend it on politics I disagree with."
And these fair share fees — the more technical term for them is "agency fees" — can be almost as expensive as union membership itself. For instance, full members of California Teachers Association chapters often pay around $1,000 per year in dues, but non-members still pay around $650 in agency fees. In Los Angeles, non-members still pay more like $750 annually to the union.
In Wednesday's Janus decision, the Supreme Court changed that. A 5-4 majority ruled agency fees violate employees' First Amendment rights.
The term "free rider" doesn't fit an agency fee-payer, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority: "He is not a free rider on a bus headed for a destination that he wishes to reach but is more like a person shanghaied for an unwanted voyage."
SO WHAT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW?
Public employees who hadn't joined a union and instead had been paying agency fees now no longer have to pay them. In the short term, that means public-sector unions will lose out on a portion of their budgets.
For instance, between 7 and 8 percent of teachers covered by California Teachers Association contracts are non-members who — at least up until Wednesday — had been paying agency fees. But CTA president Eric Heins said in an interview his union would stop collecting those fees immediately.
The bigger question is what happens next. As Callopy, who leads the Teachers Association of Long Beach, put it, there's "now the prospect of people deciding, 'Well, now that I don't have to pay anything, will I be a part of that group?'" (About 4 percent of Long Beach teachers pay agency fees rather than join the union.)
In other words: will the union's revenue losses end with the agency fee-payers? Will more government employees — including some current members — walk away as well? And will newly-hired public employees join in the first place?
ARE UNIONS READY FOR THIS?
Kent Wong, who leads the UCLA Labor Center, said many unions have been re-engaging with members "trying to develop comprehensive organizing programs."
Some unions have not been as successful in getting these programs off the ground as others, Wong said, "so I do think that the unions that have done their homework and done the groundbreaking work of organizing new members will be fine. But other unions will suffer a decrease in revenues and the numbers of fee-paying members."
Wong offered kudos specifically for L.A.'s powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and for the United Domestic Workers home health care union.
For some unions, many of the same pitch points remain. "Unions are always about bread and butter, ultimately," said Callopy, who leads the Teachers Association of Long Beach. Joining the union gives teachers access to legal representation and other protections in case they're disciplined or sued on the job.
Still, some union leaders have been shoring up their own budgets in preparation for Janus.
Callopy said Teachers Association of Long Beach staff decided not to fill an open staff position, knowing a Janus ruling was imminent. The union is also clearing out one floor of its two-story office building to rent out for extra cash.
WHERE DO OUR STATE LAWMAKERS STAND?
Organized labor has plenty of friends in Sacramento's Democratic-majority legislature. Several labor-backed bills signed into law in recent years are designed to strengthen union power. The state budget bill last year included a measure mandating union orientation for new public employees as part of their onboarding.
The budget bill also included paid sick leave for in-home health care workers.
Other bills extended collective bargaining rights to the California Judicial Council, which sets policy for the state court system, and student research assistants.
Another prohibits public employers from discouraging union membership.
San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, herself a former labor leader, pushed a bill mandating sexual harassment and violence prevention training in the janitorial industry. Now she's pushing a second bill that would require firms to have peers, potentially union members, do part of the training.
HOW ARE ANTI-UNION GROUPS REACTING?
After the Janus decision was announced, the Freedom Foundation, which supports workers' rights to choose not to join a union, quickly updated a website it runs to encourage people to opt out of paying union dues.
The site provides online forms that workers can fill out and mail, informing unions that represent them of their decision to leave or not to join. It also warns workers not to be "bullied" by union reps into maintaining membership.
Samuel Han, California director of the Freedom Foundation, said he thinks the Janus ruling might actually help centrist Democrats who want to "unhitch themselves from unions" on issues like pensions and social programs.
"I think you're going to see a lot more business-minded, socially liberal candidates," he said.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO UNION MEMBERSHIP?
Kent Wong from the UCLA Labor Center said the likelihood is that union membership will decline, but forecasting "the rate of decline is very speculative. We just really don't know."
Still, Wong predicted California's public-sector unions will, by comparison, fare far better than those in other states — particularly in red or purple states where union influence has already eroded significantly.
Even some who cheered the Janus ruling said precipitous declines in union membership were unlikely.
"I don't think this is going to have the terrible consequences some are predicting," said Terry Pell, who runs the Center for Individual Rights, a D.C. law firm representing the plaintiffs suing the California Teachers' Association, including Ryan Yohn.
Pell does not believe unions will lose more than the share of employees currently paying agency fees.
"This is now in the hands of the union," Pell said. "If the union competes for members and sells what it has to offer, it will retain the bulk of its membership, and life will go on."
Yohn said he believes the Janus ruling "just simply shifts the power from the union leadership down to each worker," adding union leaders had "never asked what any of us believed."
But Heins and Wong fear right-leaning groups are organizing to deliver another blow to public-sector unions by convincing individual members to drop their membership — a task Janus just made easier.
"It's a political move," Heins said, "that's been well-funded by corporate elites to further tilt the economy in their favor and hurt working people in America."
News happens every day. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you and the community you live in. Now that we're part of KPCC, those stories (including this one you're on right now!) are made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism isn't cheap, but with your support we can keep delivering it. Donate now.