By Jon Cronin
New York unions are seeing an increase in membership and commitment from members after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision on Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), in which it was ruled unconstitutional to take union fees out of the paychecks of nonunion public employees.
As politicians have noted, the concept of a bargaining entity working on behalf of workers was born in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated that fact and signed legislation on April 12 that helps New York’s public-employee unions recruit and retain members and limits the free services provided.
The lawsuit was originally brought in 2015 against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the largest public union in the country—by then–newly-elected Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, but a judge concluded that Rauner could not participate in the case.
The case was brought before the court again by Mark Janus, a child-support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. According to the website standwithworkers.org, which is funded by right-wing think tank Liberty Justice Center, Janus, 65, did not want to be part of a union and was upset that fees were being deducted from his paycheck. The court ruled in Janus’ favor at the end of June on the grounds that applying public-sector union fees to nonmembers violates the First Amendment. Janus claimed that he is not against unions.
Unions have seen this action coming for years and have mobilized to react.
Andrea Vásquez, the first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress—the union that represents more than 30,000 faculty and staff in the CUNY system—noted that “even the threat mobilized us.”
Vásquez said that after the case concluded, the union began reaching out to members for a recommitment. She said that they had thousands of one-on-one conversations to discuss contracts and membership.
“We went from 85 to 96 percent of full-time membership,” she said. “The Janus case was meant to defund unions and make us less influential.”
Vásquez added that the intention has backfired.
“Our level of activity has grown tremendously with an increase in numbers,” she said. “Members are choosing to stand with their unions. We found people we never had before.”
Vásquez said that the union had no idea what to expect following the decision, but in the week after the court’s ruling, more than 500 people either re-committed or joined the union.
In the following two months, only 10 people have wavered in their decision to remain part of the union.
Vásquez added that as classes are starting on campuses and faculty orientations are being held for new hires, union representatives are on campuses to talk with teachers and staff. She said that there are 30 new union members at Queens College so far.
Her sentiments were echoed by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union represents New York City’s public school teachers.
“Our opponents for years have been trying to silence labor’s voice,” he said. “They may think that the Janus ruling is a victory for them, but we are finding that the Janus decision is galvanizing our membership to organize and fight even harder to defend the rights of working people.”
Queens College Professor Joshua Freeman, a political scientist who is an expert on labor unions, agrees.
“To some extent, that happened following it,” he said. “People knew this was coming for a long time.”
He said that he saw unions reaching out to members for months to strengthen the bonds among members.
“In the short term, it has led to increased membership,” he said. “It is difficult to see what lies ahead.”
He noted that on the opposing side, there were some efforts from conservatives to persuade members to leave unions.
“It’s too early to tell if that’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “There will be some dropouts, but it will vary from union to union.”
Unions representing public teachers believe that this is an attack by conservatives to privatize public schools.
“There’s a lot of truth to weakening public schools and turning them private,” Freeman said. “They see public employees as part of a robust government.”
Freeman said that by weakening unions, conservatives believe that they could attain the goal of smaller government.
“[Unions] are big political donors,” he added.
Freeman said that in many parts of the country, unions representing teachers are the most visible public-employee unions.
As part of Cuomo’s response to the decision, the governor signed legislation that allows union representatives to meet all public employees on paid time.
Freeman recalled that when he was hired by Queens College in the late 1990s, there was a union representative at his faculty orientation.
He added that although the court’s decision could prove to be “a real challenge,” unions had big wins before the dues started coming out of paychecks in the 1970s.
“In the past, they have been able to function without it,” Freeman said, referring to charging nonmembers fees.