I didn’t start teaching in a public school until I was in my late 30s. Prior to that I mainly did factory work, but always as a union member.
Whether it was in steel or auto or what was once the United Rubber Workers as a tire builder at UniRoyal, I always carried a union card.
I often tell the story about how as a new teacher I had to go looking for our union building rep in order to join the local affiliate of the Illinois Education Association.
I had been hired mid-year.
“Might as well wait until next year,” the rep told me.
The first thing I did when I got into a leadership position in the local was to make sure we got time at the district’s new-teacher orientation to talk about the union and sign folks up.
This made it all the more ironic when state union officials, both elected and staff, would attack me as “anti-union” whenever I criticized or questioned deals and positions that seemed to me to be opposed to the interests of our members or workers in general.
In These Times has a column by Lois Weiner on the impact of the Janus case now before the Supreme Court.
Most observers concede that the Court will rule against public employee unions on the issue of agency fees when they rule on Janus. Agency fees are what is paid by all of the workers if they work in a place of employment with a union collective bargaining agreement.
Even if they choose not to join.
Without the right to collect this Fair Share, unions will be in deep stuff.
Lois Weiner writing for In These Times places the Janus case in the context of the right-wing corporate assault on unions.
However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”
Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.
Labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”
But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.
I find this description painfully accurate.
For those of us who have spent their working lives – not just as union members but as “shop floor” union member organizers – it is hard to see our organizations in full retreat.
So the questions I want to think and talk with you about is how should the unions respond to the new conditions that include things like Janus, but also how to respond to the changing nature of work?
And why is it that no matter how often we change the faces of those at the top of our unions, what Lois Weiner and others call “business unionism” continues to hold sway?