Reports of unions’ death were greatly exaggerated
Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.
When Justice Samuel Alito and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus vs. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst. The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.
Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus — more than offsetting the 84,000 “agency fee payers” it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling. And the union has had a burst of energy. There has been a surge of high-profile strikes by teachers’ unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Rallies, pickets and local campaigns mushroomed by the hundreds. The union has tallied 11 organizing wins since Janus, tripled its “member engagement” budget from 2014 and nearly doubled the number of voters it contacted in 2018.
“Alito put his thumb on the scales of justice for the antiunion ideologues,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It was a wake-up call to everyone. Everybody got engaged.”
Labor leaders ought to thank Alito and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case. Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump’s hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees feared it could lose 30 percent of its revenue. Instead, AFSCME reports that for every free rider opting out since Janus, it has gained seven new members. It has continued to notch organizing wins. It has also trained more than 25,000 activists over the past three years to spread the union gospel.
Many of the “agency-fee payers,” the ones whose free speech was allegedly compromised because they were “forced to subsidize a union,” as Alito put it, have become full members of unions instead of quitting. AFSCME reports that 310,000 former agency fee payers have converted to full membership since 2014. (The anti-union plaintiff in the AFSCME case, Mark Janus, who before the ruling said “I love my job,” quit his state-government job right after the decision and joined a conservative think tank.)
Rank-and-file members, meanwhile, perceiving the threat to the union, have become more aggressive in recruitment. Workplace units have organically launched everything from social media campaigns and town-hall meetings to civil disobedience and full-blown strikes. And union bosses redirected resources from member services toward organizing, engagement and high-impact community campaigns.
The overall result: Instead of the feared 30 percent drop in membership, public-sector unions held their own in 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week. There was a total decline of just 83,000, or 0.7 percent.
Labor is still a long way from healthy, and more legal threats could blunt the renewed momentum. Lawsuits attempting to force unions to refund agency-fee payers retroactively could be ruinous. But the renewed energy following Janus points the way forward for labor: Success is to be found not in reinvention but in returning to its combative origins.
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist. You can follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.