National “right to work” is coming. The forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME could deal a devastating blow to public-sector unions by striking down their ability to collect mandatory dues from members. If the Court rules as expected, it will be the latest victory against collective bargaining for the rich and powerful.
“Right-to-work” laws, which already exist in 28 states, prohibit “agency shops,” which require that workers either belong to a union or pay a fee equivalent to union dues. The union must represent every worker covered by a workplace’s collective-bargaining agreement, regardless of their membership status—many in the labor movement call these non-members “free riders.” Right-to-work laws exist to deplete unions of resources, thus lowering standards for workers across the board and shifting power from workers to bosses.
The right wing has long had the total decimation of unions at the top of its agenda. In a fundraising letter written in April 2016, the insidiously named State Policy Network (an alliance of 66 anti-union think tanks) wrote that the purpose of making right-to-work the law in all 50 states was “permanently depriving the Left from access to millions of dollars in dues.” Dues are the lifeblood of unions’ ability to sustain their organization, fund new organizing projects, and provide resources to broader social-justice movements.
Union membership in this country is already at a historic low—just 10.7 percent of the workforce was unionized in 2016—and national right-to-work will be another crushing blow. Unions are understandably panicked by the onslaught of anti-worker legislation and bosses who refuse to play by the rules. But the labor movement itself bears some responsibility for the decline in worker power. As membership has plummeted, unions haven’t spent time adequately preparing to meet the challenges of today by organizing that builds fighting unions. Labor’s biggest gains have been made not when the law has been on our side but when workers have been most willing to stand up and fight.
Over the years there has been a pronounced shift from a model of social-movement unionism to service unionism. This means that critical decisions about things like contracts are made without much input from workers. Sure, the union will release a bargaining survey, and maybe even have a small committee of workers at the bargaining table. But at the end of the day, a small group of members and union staff often negotiate a contract on behalf of the majority of workers. An overall lack of worker engagement, union leadership’s reluctance to fight, and the austere times in which we live all result in workers’ making more and more concessions. When unions wind up with weak contracts, workers often grumble that “the union” got them a bad deal.
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Sadly, many workers see their union no longer as a vehicle for change but as a service that is funded by their dues money. If there’s an issue at work, workers can expect that a union representative will handle it through a grievance procedure, in many cases far removed from a worker-run organizing committee and a shop-floor struggle. If the union wins the grievance for the worker, the worker will continue to have faith in the union. And if the union loses the grievance, well, those union dues just become another monthly bill for a worker to resent.
Bargaining and filing grievances have become opaque processes that are divorced from workers’ lives, and removed from any kind of collective struggle. Rather than workers’ feeling like they run their union together, the model of service unionism creates a transactional relationship between two separate entities, the worker and the union. When our fights move from the shop floor to a conference room, we might negotiate a good contract, but we lose any hope of building a broad and militant movement. The union can’t win every grievance or achieve a strong contract if those actions aren’t part of a larger struggle. The service model of unionism will continue to fail, because it’s antagonistic to a true union vision: workers uniting to make change in their workplace and their communities.
The service model of unionism exists because paid union leadership believes that the most efficient way to make change is through union staffers, lawyers, and proximity to elected officials. The message that workers get is that change comes from the top down and organizing is like a business deal that happens between powerful individuals behind closed doors. The result, of course, is that rank-and-file workers don’t have the freedom to exercise the leadership that they need to build power in their workplaces and their communities.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that rank-and-file workers can bring about radical change more effectively than the Democratic politicians who tend to receive the support of union leadership. During Obama’s 2008 campaign, he pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011. When fast-food workers were still being forced to work for $7.25 in 2012, they stepped out on strike for the first time, with very few politicians by their side. Many thought their hopes were too lofty, that they couldn’t win. But workers in the Fight for $15 kept pushing, kept striking, kept organizing, and now many cities and some states have lifted the minimum wage to $15. The Democrats didn’t lead that charge; low-wage workers did. Eventually, politicians had no choice but to fall in line.
Democrats are generally moved more by unions’ actions in the streets than by the deals they try to make behind closed doors. In 2008, unions collectively spent over $200 million dollars to elect Barack Obama. He ran on the promise of passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would allow workers to unionize through card check, without needing to go to an election. It would also force employers to bargain with their workers within 120 days of a union’s being formed—forcing bosses to stop dragging their feet on contract negotiations. Although union members knocked on countless doors for Obama, he couldn’t bring himself to pass EFCA—even with a Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate.
Instead of funneling our vanishing resources to the Democratic Party—which ignores us until the next election rolls around—we should put workers’ dues towards organizing. And real, deep organizing—not just helping workers vote for a union but developing worker leaders who have the tools and skills not only to to lead their shops but to do transformative political work in their communities.
In 2010, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) unseated the long-standing leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union. The United Progressive Caucus, in leadership nearly uninterrupted from 1972 to 2010, practiced a service model of unionism to disastrous effect. In 2004, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Richard Daley launched an attack on public education called Renaissance 2010. The plan was to create 100 new charter schools, primarily by closing “underperforming” public schools, by 2010. Outside of a few impotent statements raising questions about the plan, union leadership was unwilling to truly go toe to toe with their friends in office.
CORE, by contrast, positioned itself as a confrontational union, one that wasn’t afraid to stand up to the powers that be. Unlike the old guard, CORE wasn’t interested in cozying up to elected officials or cutting deals with them. It wanted a union run by teachers, supported by parents, and for the benefit of students. It knew it couldn’t do this with a continued narrow focus on just bread-and-butter issues—pay and benefits—when public education was being attacked on all sides. And it definitely couldn’t build its union with the politicians who were leading the fight against public education. To win strong contracts—and, more importantly, to protect public schools and students in Chicago—CORE teachers understood that they needed a mass movement behind them. By threatening to strike, teachers not only secured cost-of-living increases and step and lane raises; they also won a limit on classroom sizes and fairer teacher evaluations. To ensure these victories, teachers and parents pushed Mayor Rahm Emanuel to use millions of dollars from a redevelopment subsidy that he previously refused to touch.
CORE is not the only caucus to shake up its union, but they’re few and far between. As we face national right-to-work, unions must refocus their efforts into organizing that changes not only workplaces but also communities. Our task is to lead workers through a struggle, and we’ve gone off course. Of course, it’s easy to write this, and it’s much harder to do it. But the current situation is untenable—right-wing attacks on labor continue and unions have been unable to politic their way out of them. There are two options: continuing on the path we’re on and disappearing, or doing the difficult work of rebuilding fighting unions.
Workers understand power in numbers, and they know that they have a better shot sticking together than going through it alone. We have to trust that solidarity is real, and that workers will choose to pool their resources to build strong organizations. We must have faith in the working class.
Teachers’ unions across the country should model CORE’s struggle and fight for working conditions that are the learning conditions students deserve, for fully funded public education, and a stop to charter expansion. Nurses’ unions should mirror National Nurses United’s fight for universal health care, for safe staffing ratios that benefit both patients and nurses, and against the pharmaceutical-industry-driven opioid epidemic. AFSCME and other public-employee unions should join their communities’ fights for robust municipal and state budgets funded by corporations and the wealthy. All working-class people, union or not, would support contract fights that don’t just give workers a raise but lift up entire communities.
No matter the outcome of Janus, the time is now to depart from business as usual, and chart a new course in the direction for the labor movement in this country—a direction that no longer places our just demands into a box of what is practical but unleashes our willingness to fight for what we deserve. Hard times are fighting times.