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How to Defeat the Post-Janus Union Attacks

Janus opens the door to active campaigns by the Right to get members to drop their union dues. Here's how labor can fight back.

Construction workers and union members hold a rally in Columbus Circle, May 22, 2018 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Maybe it will come in the mail. Maybe a phone call, a knock on the door, or a Facebook ad. Give yourself a raise, they will say. Quit your union.

Their hope is that hundreds of thousands will agree.

Public-sector labor unions have lost Janus v AFSCME. The Supreme Court has stripped all public-sector unions in the country of the right to collect fair share fees from workers whom they represent but who choose not to become union members. In functional terms, it is a national right-to-work law for state, county, city, and school district employees. Union membership will soon become solely voluntary.

But the real danger of the Janus decision isn’t from Samuel Alito’s majority opinion. It will come from the right-wing juggernaut that stands ready to exploit the new legal landscape by going union member-by-union member in an attempt to, as they put it, “defund and defang” the left. Union members and leaders need to be ready: the opt-out effort is coming.

The Guardian and In These Times have both published exposes based on leaked documents of efforts by groups affiliated with the State Policy Network (SPN) to target individual union members and persuade them to quit their union membership. SPN is a central hub in the vast array of dark-money-funded groups that have led the fight against public sector unions, starting with Scott Walker’s 2011 assault in Wisconsin and culminating now with Janus.

Janus offers every public-sector union member in the country a tantalizing option: the right to stop paying dues to the union while still receiving all the benefits of union membership. At first glance, it’s something for nothing, and SPN’s allies want to make sure union members know about it.

The Anti-Union Playbook

We’ve already seen early versions of this, so we know what it will look like. After Michigan passed right to work in 2012, the Mackinac Center of Public Policy — an SPN member that has received millions from right-wing donors like the Bradley Foundation and the Donors Capital Fund — created a website specifically targeting members of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA). The site, www.michiganunionoptout.com, includes a handy calculator for MEA members to see how much money they are “losing” to union dues over their lifetimes, as well as printable forms for MEA members to opt out of their dues.

In Oregon and Washington, the Freedom Foundation (another SPN member, if you were wondering) escalated to door-to-door canvassing. They sent postcards and emails and made phone calls, too — they even sent people “dressed as Santa Claus to stand outside government buildings” at Christmastime in 2015, urging public-sector employees to give themselves a present by dropping their union membership. And of course they also had an opt out website (www.optouttoday.com).

But the doorknocking is what really took their efforts to a new level. The Freedom Foundation insisted the canvassing was being undertaken by “activists.” But their 990 disclosure form — which nonprofits have to file with the IRS — reported that the organization had only twenty volunteers in 2016, while it paid 105 employees a total of $2.1 million. The corporate right, of course, becomes apoplectic when unions have the temerity to approach workers in their own homes, but it has no problem using the tactic itself. Labor’s success with doorknocking has shown them it works.

The specifics of the “opt out” pitch varies, but it’s always grounded in the same right-wing playbook that has been used against unions for years. The SPN’s “State Workplace Freedom” toolkit published by the Guardian identifies five elements of effective anti-union messaging:

  1. Describe yourself as pro-worker instead of anti-union
  2. Use union members (and former union members) as the face of the message
  3. Avoid jargon
  4. Be sure to speak to the whole community, not just union members
  5. Use the language of choice and fairness.

(It should be no surprise that numbers 2, 3 and 4 are as important for unions as for union opponents.)

Their goal, according to the Guardian, is to cause unions to lose 20 percent of their members, and the millions of dollars in union dues those members would pay. As I’ve written before, anti-union forces in the United States aren’t trying to ban unions outright. Instead, they’re seeking to weaken them so much that they maintain their form while losing their substance. The opt-out campaign is part and parcel of this strategy. How can unions prepare for it?

Playing Psychic

First and foremost, unions need to tell their members the whole story. Unions have the chance to play psychic – we can predict the future, and since we know what’s coming there’s no excuse not to be ready for it. Every union leader, shop steward, and rank-and-file activist needs to be educated about the SPN’s anti-union playbook, and they need to go person-by-person in every unionized public-sector workplace spreading the word.

Organizers call this inoculation: warn members what the other side will do so that when it comes it’s not a surprise. Done right, inoculation can do more than just help with defense, it can build power. I once knew an organizing campaign that was facing employer captive-audience meetings. Workers were being forced to sit and listen to an anti-union diatribe on company time. Union activists inoculated members by handing out bingo cards with anti-union talking points as people went into the meetings. Not only did it take all the wind out of the boss’ sails and turn what could have been a scary intimidation tactic into a cause for hilarity, the workers came to trust their union as a source of reliable information.

Inoculation is important, but not sufficient. Unions also need a specific strategy to deal with the particulars of the opt-out campaign when it comes to them. Some unions have already negotiated language with employers giving them the right to be alerted when freedom of information requests are made for their members’ names and addresses. Unions also need to set up rapid-response operations to be ready with messaging and action at the first sign an attack has started.

Unions for the Common Good

But ultimately, labor will need to go beyond these reactive measures. It’s tempting to look at Janus as reason to get into a defensive crouch, but that would be a huge mistake. Unions need to remind their members that our source of power is in our people, not our dues money, and that no Supreme Court case can change that.

One good way to do that is to use Janus to become more open and democratic around political action. One of the great ironies of Janus (and Friedrichs before it) is that the plaintiff’s case was based on the premise that all public-sector union activity is inherently political. Those of us on the union side sometimes only wish that were so.

Today, most public-sector unions go to great lengths to segregate their political activities, like electoral endorsements and policy campaigns, from the “normal” stuff unions do. Political decisions are deferred to executive boards or semi-independent political action committees. Member input is not only not sought, it is treated as a distraction — in no small part because many union leaders fear that political decisions will be internally divisive. Political “experts” in the union world are used to isolating themselves from members, treating them as an annoyance to be avoided rather than as our primary resource.

Unions that behave this way are vulnerable to the opt-out campaign’s claims that they are merely fundraising vehicles for the Democratic Party. In politics, the process matters. Members who are considering opting out will feel even more reason to do so if it seems to them that the union is making big political stands without consulting them. Conversely, even someone who might not agree with their union’s political endorsements is more likely to stay in if they know they have a real voice in how those decisions are made.

If the Supreme Court is going to declare that public-sector unions are thoroughly political, then we might as well embrace the label. Political education events should move to the center of union life, instead of being a peripheral activity. Unions need to create new models of transparency and democratic decision-making so that all union members can participate in their organization’s political processes, and disagreements can be used to build towards commonality instead of dividing us.

The public sector is ready for this. The mantra of “bargaining for the common good” that has gained popularity in educators’ unions should be broadened into a concept of unions for the common good. Public-sector employees are overwhelmingly motivated by a sense of duty and public service, but many don’t think of their union as a vehicle for expressing those commitments. Unions can change that by leveraging their collective power to make members’ voices heard not just across the bargaining table, but in the public sphere everywhere. Unions do not exist for their contracts; contracts exist for unions, and they are but one of many tools that union leaders can use to advocate for working people.

The recent strikes in in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, for instance, weren’t just about members’ wages. They also advanced a blistering critique of their states’ financial models and demands for corporations and the uber-wealthy to pay more. That broader vision of a union’s political mission has long been necessary. Let’s use Janus to embrace it.

Embracing Solidarity

Finally, and most importantly, public-sector unions need to rid themselves once and for all of the consumer mentality that treats union membership as an individual benefit rather than as a tool for worker solidarity. A major national union still has a video on its YouTube page that compares union “free-riders” to friends who go out to a restaurant and don’t pick up their share of the bill. I can’t begin to describe how terrible an idea this is.

If the choice of whether to pay $500 or $1000 a year in union dues is posed as an individual consumer decision, it’s not remotely irrational to quit. We fool ourselves if we don’t recognize this. This is the most dangerous part of the SPN’s messaging — treating union dues as if it were as individualized as a restaurant meal.

Worse, the “free-rider” rhetoric makes unions’ duty to represent all workers sound like something to be resented — a drag on the organization — rather than an ideal to aspire to. The more unions pursue this line of messaging, the more they’ll weaken the concept of “solidarity” — the idea that in the fight against the boss, workers rise or fall together — within the rank and file. In the long run, this will weaken members’ commitment to the union more than anything else.

The whole thrust of the Right’s political message for the past several decades has been to atomize workers — to get us to embrace only our own personal needs and to regard collective action as a surrender of power to those less special or talented. Unions are the living answer to that argument. So long as we are here and we are strong, we refute the lie that we’re better off on our own. That is the core of unionism, and only by embracing that core can we survive the coming opt-out attack.