Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘public sector workers’

When Janus Backfires: A Test Case In Labor Solidarity After Fair Share

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In the aftermath of this summer’s Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision attacking public-sector unions, the University of Illinois at Chicago is rapidly becoming a bellwether for how those unions might sink or swim in a world without fair share.

UIC prides itself on being one of the most diverse college campuses in the country and one of the most welcoming to working-class students. The city’s only public research university and home to a vast hospital system, UIC employs a cross section of public-sector workers including nurses, teachers, clerical workers, and maintenance workers, nearly all of whom are unionized.

In recent years, university officials have rightly issued public statements critical of government actions that harm members of the campus community, including Trump’s Muslim ban, the Illinois state budget impasse, and the House GOP’s failed attempt to tax graduate student tuition waivers. But since the Supreme Court issued its anti-union decision in the Janus case this June—threatening the collective bargaining rights of thousands of university employees—the administration has been silent. Instead, through their actions, administrators have indicated a willingness to use Janus to engage in union busting.

In the first month after the ruling came down, the university payroll office failed to deduct dues from hundreds of card-signed union members from several unions on campus, including UIC United Faculty (UICUF), the Illinois Nurses Association (INA)SEIU Local 73, and my own union, the UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). In the case of GEO, this cost our relatively small local of graduate student workers a whopping $10,000.

UIC’s failure to deduct member dues in July was not only illegal, but it also effectively silenced workers who actually want to pay dues because they enjoy having workplace rights. The administration openly admitted they hadn’t deducted dues, but said they weren’t going to do anything to remedy this obvious legal violation. Instead, they’ve forced the unions into a protracted grievance and arbitration dispute, apparently hoping they can simply tire us out or outspend us in legal fees.

Further, the administration is claiming the right to unilaterally process membership revocations without notifying the unions, which goes against university HR’s own policy. They also refuse to provide us with timely information about which employees are in our respective bargaining units, which is especially harmful for GEO since our bargaining unit changes dramatically every semester. Not knowing exactly who we represent at all times makes it difficult to sign up new members and impossible to ensure UIC is deducting dues correctly.

In August, GEO discovered that the university had mistakenly deducted dues from sixty nonmembers, individuals we had never claimed were union members in the first place. Mistakes like this put the union at legal risk, since the erroneously deducted money goes into our local’s bank account and makes the local liable for “taking” it. We alerted the administration immediately and they quickly corrected the error. What we still haven’t been able to figure out is why a handful of grad workers, overwhelmed with our normal teaching and research responsibilities and representing our union as volunteers, have to tell well-paid administrators at a multibillion-dollar institution like UIC how to do their jobs.

All of this comes as our unions are in the middle of contract negotiations. Even before Janus, UIC was already prone to bullying campus workers at the bargaining table and pushing us into going on strike. In 2014, faculty with UICUF had to strike to win their first contract. Last fall, the INA-represented staff nurses and administrative nurses at the UI Hospital came within a hair’s breadth of walking off the job before an eleventh-hour agreement was reached. This past spring, grad workers at the Urbana-Champaign campus had to strike for nearly two weeks in order to safeguard tuition waivers.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the administration has tried to exploit the post-Janus confusion around dues deductions to gain an advantage in bargaining, presumably to pressure us into making concessions on issues that matter to our members in exchange for the continued existence of our unions. When GEO first questioned why the administration had not deducted July member dues, they said they would only discuss it with us in contract negotiations—never mind that abiding by existing contract language and existing law is non-negotiable.

UIC grad workers—whose baseline pay is only $18,000 and who are forced to pay up to $2,000 in fees every year—are fighting for living wages and fee waivers. UIC’s tenured and nontenured faculty are fighting for increased job security, shared governance, and raises. That should be the focus of negotiations, not bureaucratic procedures around dues deductions.

The administration is waging its most vicious attack on the underpaid Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) with INA at the UI Hospital, who have also been in bargaining since Janus came down. Shortly after the ruling was issued, the university decided to bring in a new lead negotiator, who proceeded to tear up previously agreed-upon articles and introduce extremely regressive proposals in their place. Among other things, UIC is demanding LPNs surrender their right to engage in virtually any kind of concerted activity at the workplace, while demanding INA publicly disavow any kind of protest carried out by its members and threatening to single out union leaders for discipline.

UIC administrators seem to have assumed that Janus would leave our unions weakened and afraid, allowing them to ride roughshod over us and impose terrible contracts. But they miscalculated.

Thanks to the administration’s handling of Janus, the campus unions are working together closely. In late July, members of INA, UICUF, SEIU Local 73, and GEO held a joint march on the boss, showing up unexpectedly at the office of the head of university Labor Relations to demand accountability around the failure to deduct dues. Clearly rattled by this, the administration has since been far more careful around processing deductions and correcting errors when we point them out.

Meanwhile, all of our unions have filed or plan to file both grievances and Unfair Labor Practice charges. GEO and UICUF are ramping up our respective contract campaigns, both building towards possible strikes next spring which might easily coincide. This week, the LPNs will be going out on an indefinite ULP strike, and members from all four of our unions will hold a unified protest and rally as the UIC Board of Trustees gathers on campus for a meeting.

The budding coalition of UIC unions should be on every labor activist’s radar, as it’s emblematic of what a post-Janus world can look like for public-sector unions: a huge uptick in hostility from the boss met with more solidarity, more organizing, more direct action, more strikes, and a deeper determination to fight for our rights as public sector workers to ensure our students get the education they deserve, and our patients get the care they deserve.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.

Janus Is Here—But Don’t Ring the Death Knell for the Labor Movement

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

In a major decision that will impact labor for decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has just declared that all public-sector workers who are represented by a union have a Constitutional right to pay the union nothing for the representation.

The Court overturned its landmark 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which permitted public-sector unions to charge fair-share fees that covered the costs of providing collective bargaining and contract administration to non-members that were represented by the union. Today, in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment prohibits public employee unions from charging a mandatory fee for the costs of representation. Therefore, going forward, all public-sector employees will be under so-called “right to work,” the union-busting legal framework that denies unions the ability to charge workers dues. This decision will directly and indirectly impact how unions are structured, how they engage with their members and objectors, how they organize and educate and how they are funded. But this decision will not destroy, defund or decimate labor.

First off, the Janus decision will only directly impact less than half of the labor movement. This is because the ruling only applies to public-sector workers: federal, state and local government employees. However, federal employees (including postal employees) have long been under so-called “right to work,” so Janus will have minimal direct impact on them. Furthermore, many state and local public-sector workers are already in “right to work” states, so this ruling will have no effect on them. This is not to say that the whole labor movement will not be negatively impacted by a decline in membership among public-sector unions, but it is important to remember that Janus will not place all union members under “right to work.”

It is difficult to predict what effect Janus will have on union membership overall. There is a good chance there will be at least some decline in membership, thanks to the free-rider problem: the likelihood of some workers who are not opposed to the union choosing to pay nothing simply because they can get something for nothing. However, state-level data on the decline of union membership following the passage of state “right to work” laws is not necessarily a good predictor of what will happen after Janus, because most of the state laws are a mixture of anti-worker laws that include “right to work.” For example, in Wisconsin, union membership declined 38 percent  between 2010 (the year prior to the passage of Act 10) and 2016. However, Act 10 contained a host of other provisions, such as the elimination of collective bargaining for public-sector workers.

Following Janus, unions will now have to fight for every union member to ensure they choose to remain members and pay their dues. Right-wing groups of the sort that brought Janus, Friedrichs and other anti-union cases, will mount a nationwide campaign to get members to quit the union. Many labor unions that have not been strong in engaging their membership will have to keep up a constant level of contact and organization to maintain their memberships or risk losing big. They will have to make the case to members why they should stay with the union and pay dues, and they will have to make that case often.

Unions are considering a number of options for getting state laws changed, or changing internal policy, to adjust to Janus. New York passed a law in anticipation of Janus, which other states are considering, that would allow unions to deny or charge for some services, such as grievance representation. Some states are considering laws that would require workers who are not members of the union to pay for representation in grievance procedures. This approach would have the benefit of discouraging free-ridership by not providing the full benefits of membership to those workers who choose not to join. However, it carries the danger of turning unions into pay-for-service organizations that will find themselves turning away workers in their time of need.

Labor law professor Samuel Estreicher has proposed an interesting approach that unions could take that would reduce the rate of possible free-riders, not require legislation, and not require unions to turn away non-paying workers. Estreicher argues that unions should require workers who choose not to pay their union dues to instead donate the money to a 501(c)(3) charity. Unions already permit religious objectors to take this route, and Estreicher suggests expanding the program to any objectors. Since this approach would require all workers to pay an amount equivalent to their dues—but would let them decide if the recipient was the union representing them or a charity—it would separate the true objectors from the free-riders.

The allowance of fair-share fees, in both the public and private sector, was in part intended to promote labor peace, and the imposition of “right to work” may lead to more strikes and labor unrest. The massive teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina have all taken place in “right to work” states, and this commonfact was likely no coincidence. Workers in “right to work” states tend to have lower salaries and fewer benefits. Meanwhile, unions are weaker, possibly because they serve as a moderating force to avoid direct—and often illegal—confrontation. These effects from “right to work” can create an environment where workers’ frustration grows, they have few options to better their situations without direct action, and they organize at a grass-roots level. After Janus, with “right to work” becoming the new rule for all public-sector workers, there may be a break from a long period of U.S. history when strikes have been rare.

About the Author: Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.
This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

Women, Black Workers Hard Hit by Attacks on Public Employees

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Credit: Joe Kekeris

The improved jobs figures out last Friday obscured the ongoing decline in public-sector jobs. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted when releasing the March unemployment data:

Employment in local government continued to trend down over the month. Local government has lost 416,000 jobs since an employment peak in September 2008.

The loss of such jobs is important because the nation’s well-being depends not only on job numbers increasing, but on the creation of quality jobs—those that pay decent wages and enable people to attain or maintain a middle-class life. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new jobs being created aren’t as good as the ones that have been lost. NELP found that jobs in lower wage industries, such as retail and food preparation, made up 23 percent of the jobs that were lost in the recent recession. Yet they made up 49 percent of the jobs the economy has gained in the past year. As the BBC Business puts it:

In other words, it appears that while people may finally be returning to work, they have to work for less pay.

In contrast, jobs in the public sector have provided such economic stability. They have also made it possible for some of the nation’s most economically marginalized—women and minorities—to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.

So attacks on public employees hit women and black workers especially hard.

Susan Feiner, professor of economics and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, writes that:

employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.

Yet Feiner finds that “while women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession,”

women lost the vast majority—79 percent—of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.

Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, writes today about the striking results of his new research brief, Blacks and the Public Sector. In sum:

  • The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.
  • During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers.  Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.
  • The public sector is also a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black worker.  For both men and women, the median wage earned by black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
  • Prior to the recession, the wage differential between black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy.

As California Progress Report writes:

For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website.”

And so moves by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio to shred the ability of public employees to bargain for a decent middle-class life are also specifically targeting the ability of women and black workers to remain in the economic mainstream.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (she was represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

This blog originally was post on AFL-CIO on April 5, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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