In a decision that surprised no one, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled against working people and in favor of billionaires and corporate interests in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, holding that requiring fair-share fees in public sector workplaces violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“This is a dark day in U.S. jurisprudence, a day when the thirst for power trampled the needs of communities and the people who serve them,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The dissenting justices saw this case for what it really was—a warping and weaponizing of the First Amendment, absent any evidence or reason, to hurt working people. Not only was 40 years of settled law well within the mainstream of First Amendment law, it had been affirmed six times and applied to other cases upholding bar fees for lawyers and student activity fees at public colleges.”
This case was nothing more than a blatant political attack against working Americans in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Today’s decision throws a national spotlight on unions and provides a moment of unprecedented opportunity for us to recommit to our union and add new members. Support for labor unions has risen to its highest level in years, and public employees—including educators, health professionals and public safety workers—are more determined than ever to stick together.
What is Janus?
Janus is short for Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, a lawsuit that challenged a union’s right to collect agency fees—also called “fair share”—from public sector employees who don’t want to join a union but still benefit from gains made in collective bargaining. The plaintiff, Mark Janus, an Illinois social worker, claimed that paying fees violates his free speech rights. How? Because he thinks his fees implicitly support the union’s political agenda, even though these fees are not allowed to be used for political activities; the fees can be used only to bargain and administer employee contracts.
Janus wants a “free ride.” He wants all the benefits of a union-negotiated contract and fair representation without paying for them. His case was the seventh and newest challenge to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1977 decision (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education). In each of the six previous challenges, the court recognized that even though people can decide whether to join a union, the union must represent everyone, even nonmembers, so it can ask nonmembers to pay their fair share.
In every one of these cases, anti-union zealots like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family have enlisted an individual to promote their goal, which is to destroy public employee unions. The Koch network openly vowed to “defund and defang” unions, and Janus is just one of its tactics. In fact, this multipronged attack suggests that Janus will not be the deathblow to unions these people hoped for.
In today’s decision, the dissenting justices saw this case for what it really was—an attack on working people. In a statement, four of the nation’s top unions, including the AFT and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), expressed profound dissatisfaction with this decision.
How we’re responding
Today and every day going forward, AFT members are proudly telling the world why they’re sticking with the union. As the Janus decision was announced, our members began posting pro-union photos and videos, like this one from Ohio, about how we’re stronger together. But our members have their sights set further ahead. For months, they’ve been organizing, and results are pouring in, with especially high numbers of recommitments from members in Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio.
Our recommitment program is rolling out in 10 states representing nearly 800,000 members directly affected by Janus. We are having one-to-one conversations with every member, including formal “recommits” to the union in writing. We’ve already won more than 500,000 recommits since the beginning of the year—200,000 in the past two months—and the momentum continues to build. Meanwhile, AFT affiliates across the country are strengthening their membership.
United Teachers Los Angeles began its recommitment drive in March, and so far more than 23,000 members have reconfirmed their union membership. Roughly 1,200 of UTLA’s 3,000 fee-payers have become full-fledged members. L.A. activists will continue their campaign into the summer, starting a home visit program focused on nonmembers.
Among large locals in the Northeast, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers ran an aggressive member engagement campaign this school year, accumulating more than 2,700 signed recommit cards. Similarly, the Boston Teachers Union amassed more than 6,600 recommitment cards. AFT New Jersey’s statewide program to convert agency fee-payers has brought hundreds of educators on board as new members.
All our state healthcare affiliates have expanded their public sector hospital membership through member-engagement campaigns. The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals has won four elections, gaining first contracts and more than 1,500 new members. The Ohio Nurses Association has grown by more than 1,000 new members since 2016, and the Washington State Nurses Association has added 2,000 members since 2016.
Last fall, graduate students at the University of Chicago voted to form a union representing 2,500 graduate student employees who are fighting for healthcare, child care, adequate stipends and a regular pay schedule. As the nation’s largest higher education union, the AFT already represents more than 25,000 graduate employees.
Connecticut is among our state federations with PSRP-specific organizing campaigns, where we are simultaneously organizing new members and asking current members to recommit. In recent months, AFT Connecticut has signed up more than a thousand new members. And in Minnesota, a previously independent PSRP union, the Rochester Professional Association, has just affiliated with the AFT, adding more than 600 new members to our union.
Foreshadowing more great things ahead, leaders of AFT Public Employees nationwide are swapping stories of organizing success, starting with the merger of Montana’s two largest public employee unions. The MEA-MFT and the independent Montana Public Employees Association will merge this September, becoming the Montana Federation of Public Employees. Together with the AFT-affiliated Montana Nurses Association, our union there will now represent about 30,000 members.
We’ve been here before
During a June 8 staff meeting at headquarters, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson and Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker both spoke of our union’s success before Abood. Johnson talked about how, before cellphones or social media, it was face-to-face interaction that built the AFT. It was every member becoming a “first friend and best friend” to new employees, and being highly visible during new-employee orientations. It was making sure the union touched every part of members’ lives, including social events and life crises as well as what happens on the job.
Today, Johnson said, our renewed focus on connecting with co-workers is the best way we can help them learn the power of collective action. These personal connections, she said, sometimes got lost after unions were allowed to collect agency fees from nonmembers. The decision in Janus, she said, serves as a wake-up call.
“We’ve been in variations of this place before,” Ricker agreed, pointing to long, hard battles we won, like members’ fight for control of the school board in Douglas County, Colo. We need to plan up to 15 years ahead, Ricker said, recalling an earlier time in our history when “the original, scrappy women” who organized Chicago teachers more than a century ago didn’t even have the right to vote—but still managed to pull together an enduring union that has grown to 1.7 million members.
“There are some pretty incredible signs in the news, if we watch for them,” Ricker added. For example, media professionals are joining unions at a rapid pace. “They’re not organizing because they’re mad at their boss,” Ricker said. “They’re organizing because they love their work and value what they do.” Likewise, U.S. airline pilots have created a passenger bill of rights, and striking Japanese bus drivers took the unusual tack of picking up passengers along their normal routes but refusing to take fares.
You may have noticed how the harshest funding cuts have been made in states where unions are weak, where they don’t have strong contracts, and where school employees had to walk out to make their voices heard. So, what do the billionaire extremists want for your future? Take a look at Oklahoma. All you see there are funding cuts, collapsing school buildings, and classrooms without textbooks or chairs.
“As the teacher strikes proved, working people’s aspirations will not go unheard,” Weingarten says. “Unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead. Strong unions build strong communities. We make possible what is impossible for individuals acting alone.”
AFT members have some surprises in store for those who think Janus will destroy us. Our members are more engaged than ever, and we’re taking our activism to the next level. As the fall elections approach, we will try to elect people who believe in strengthening public services. Or, as we like to say: We care, we fight and we show up.
You can play an important role in keeping the voice of working people strong and fighting the ill effects of Janus. Find out more, and take our “sticking with the union” pledge here. And be sure to tag your social media posts #union and #IamAFT.
“The Janus challenge is connecting all of us,” Weingarten told AFT members earlier this month. “We are ready.”
[Annette Licitra/photos by Pam Wolfe]