A New Supreme Court Case Could Cripple Public Employee Unions

Yves here. As much as I support unions in theory, there is too often a difference between theory in practice. In this case, my beef is that many union leaderships regularly sell out their members. I am particularly disgusted with the conduct of the unions with respect to CalPERS, where they get know-nothing, potted plants on the board who rubber stamp staff’s self-serving initiatives. Even worse, the SEIU’s Terry Brennard and CSEA’s David Low were cited by CalPERS staff as key players in getting its non-secret, tamper-friendly election procedures passed.

So if this decision goes against public employee unions, IMHO their leaders’ habit of power-seeking at the expense of the rank and file is a big part of the antipathy towards unions in America and laid the groundwork for cases like these.

By Bobbi Murray, a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Originally published at Capital and Main

Wisconsin provided early examples of scorched-earth labor policies. California unions took note.

Should Mark Janus prevail in his Supreme Court case, public-sector employees in California and other states who now pay agency fees instead of union dues will be able to  opt out of any payment at all—even though they can still benefit from collective bargaining contracts and turn to the union with grievances, enjoying a free ride that drains union resources.

The ruling would undermine the ability of public-sector unions—about half of U.S. organized labor—to set standards for wage and workplace conditions. The resulting financial pressure will hamper unions from taking lead roles in policy debates on such issues as health care. “The short-term [goal] is to reduce the ability to collect dues,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “The long-term aim is to weaken collective bargaining.”

Anti-union forces, often funded by corporate-backed foundations, have been on the attack for decades. One stunning victory was the 2011 passage of Wisconsin’s Act 10, that state’s “budget repair” bill. Republican Governor Scott Walker, long a vocal enemy of public-sector unions, introduced it to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Act 10 gutted public-sector union collective bargaining rights, leaving unions unable to negotiate wages—except raises attached to the cost-of-living—along with pensions, work conditions such as hours worked, sick leave and vacations. In other words, all the things that, for many, make it worth paying union dues.

The law also loosened restrictions on local governments’ hiring and wage policies, while allowing wage freezes and requiring higher employee health-care contributions.

Act 10 knee-capped labor as a political force in an historically union state — the first to recognize public-sector unions. By 2014 the once-robust Wisconsin State Employees Union had lost 60 percent of its members; its annual budget dropped from $6 million to $2 million. Then came the defections. In 2013 the nearly 6,000 prison guards staffing Wisconsin’s correctional facilities voted to leave WSEU for the newly-created Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement, which cut dues from WSEU’s roughly $36 monthly rate to WACLE’s $18. WACLE now represents approximately 5,900 state security workers.

“The two major public-sector unions both lost about 80 percent of dues-paying members,” Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin, Madison professor of law and sociology, told Capital & Main. Rogers is also the founder of an organization called COWS, touted as “the national high-road strategy center” think tank.  Shrunken union budgets hobbled the ability to operate effectively on policy issues and support labor-friendly candidates. “They are basically nowhere near what they were in terms of political forces,” Rogers said.

Employees whose livelihoods had taken a hit with budget cuts weren’t in a mood to pay dues to a union without collective bargaining power. So they quit—bleeding unions of funds.

“Which is what it was all about,” said Rogers.

Labor’s post-Act 10 relative absence from the Wisconsin policy arena, Rogers continued, has contributed to “an across the board assault on all public goods, starting with the K-12 system and the university—that was about 1.5 billion worth of cuts—environmental deregulation, the Department of Natural Resources stripped of powers and evacuated of scientists, endless stuff on deregulation [and] corporate liabilities have been reduced–increasing pressure to privatize public goods.”

Governor Walker, Rogers added, was backed by donors not widely known outside Wisconsin, but whose political footprint extends far beyond the state. They included Diane Hendricks, who made a fortune in the roofing-supply business. A backer of Scott Walker’s presidential PAC who donated $500,000 to defeat a union-backed recall effort against the governor, she is heard here in a YouTube clip asking Walker to turn Wisconsin into a red state; he replies that the first step is dealing with public-sector bargaining.

There was also Michael Grebe, a corporate attorney and former Marine, who chaired Walker’s gubernatorial and anti-recall campaigns. He recently retired as CEO of the Bradley Foundation, which from 2001 to 2009 donated nearly as much money to ultra-conservative causes as foundations backed by the Koch Brothers and the Scaife family combined. Efforts aimed at dismantling public infrastructure included: vouchers for private schools and cutbacks in public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights.

“We’re part of the right-wing movement,” Grebe told the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel. “I don’t think it’s conspiratorial.”

The Wisconsin labor organizations that are now managing to hold their ground are those that had cultivated a strong base before Act 10 and are adjusting strategies to reach their members and different constituencies.

Michael Rosen is a past president of American Federation of Teachers Local 212, which represents 1,400 faculty and professional staff. “Strong unions that were very active and had a mobilized membership were able to maintain [their] membership,” Rosen said.

Heather DuBois Bourenane of Wisconsin Public Education Network reflects on her organization’s efforts to organize at parent and teacher house meetings, to ramp up use of Facebook and other digital channels, to pack public state budget meetings and to launch postcard campaigns and write letters to news editors.

She was a mother with two kids in the school system holding down two part-time university teaching jobs and a third assistantship when Act 10 passed. She had marched against it and now has a sharpened sense of the need to be on guard. “We hope people look at us in Wisconsin and lift us up as lessons learned.”

The Golden State boasts the largest number of union members in the country at 2.6 million, with 53 percent represented by public-sector unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is one of the two largest; Service Employees International Union is another. Janus victorious would not be nearly as onerous for California as Act 10 was for Wisconsin, as Act 10 effectively extinguished public-sector collective bargaining. Still, Janus would provide a huge anti-labor win.

“Rough estimates are that within three years, 20 to 40 percent of union members would stop paying dues,” said Fred Ross, a veteran organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents 2,500 public-sector transit and power workers throughout California. Unions would have to operate with between 20 and 40 percent less revenue, he added.

Unions are the largest source of campaign contributions to Democratic Party legislators—many of whom support such union-backed measures as worker protections, the $15 hourly minimum wage and immigrant-rights protections, said Steve Barkan, a Los Angeles-area campaign consultant. Janus “tips the scales further toward corporate interests,” he said.

Public-sector unions were under attack in California before Janus. Labor activists like Ross have been organizing for months, some for years, to counter its potential effects. Ross’ local has developed a targeted strategy based on a volunteer organizing committee. Some 250 union member organizers are charged with building relationships with 10 other members to explain the union’s role in winning benefits and protecting rights—and signing them up as voluntary dues-paying members.

Unions for home-care workers — those paid from public funds to work in private homes caring for low-income infirm persons — got hit hard by the 2013 Harris v. Quinn decision that has similarities to the Janus case. The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling said home health-care workers didn’t have to support their unions financially.

Harris is our Janus,” said Doug Moore, executive director of the United Domestic Workers Homecare Providers Union (UDW) and an AFSCME International Vice President. Before the Harris decision, “We had 68,000 [people] ” Moore said. “We lost 20,000 [fees-paying non-members] overnight” after the decision came down.

As the Harris decision approached, the union went into high-gear to connect with its base. Most of the millions of homecare workers in the U.S. are women of color; about one-quarter live below the poverty line and more than half need public assistance to get by.

The UDW created focus groups that discovered the home-care workers’ main concern was being able to obtain more hours for severely infirm clients like those with Alzheimer’s. Staff expanded existing efforts at In-Home Supportive Services worker orientation sessions in 21 counties around the state to make presentations. There were house visits, efforts to match Facebook profiles to email, a button on the website to sign up, going paperless and doing sign-ups via tablet—anything that would engage and listen to members, and convey the value of the union. There are now 72,000 dues-paying members — approaching double the UDW’s pre-Harris level.

The same story applied to SEIU Local 2015, which also represents public-sector home-care workers. Harris threatened Local 2015’s voluntary membership rates. The union began to look at ZIP codes—connecting homecare workers that live within blocks of one another but would never meet on the job. Facebook and Twitter helped. Membership increased by 48 percent, said Kim Evon, a Local 2015 vice-president. “Our demographic tends to be 70 percent women of color—and the average age is 55. We make a lot of assumptions that they are not plugged in but they are. Mail is that thing that piles up and gets stuck in the circulars from Vons.”

In a September organizing blitz, 16 different Southern California unions approached adjunct faculty at East Los Angeles College to join the California Federation of Teachers; meanwhile, SEIU 99, which organizes non-professional campus workers, informed child care providers of the benefits of belonging to a union. Private-sector janitors and security guards and other workers visited public-sector workers who are going to be impacted by Janus.

Alfonso Garcia was one of them. A union member since 1987, Garcia is currently an organizer for United Steelworkers Local 675, and has talked to part-time teachers, childcare providers and homecare workers in their homes to explain what a union does—about benefits, job security and meeting with management. “One voice, that’s just one person,” he said. “One thousand—that’s a better voice. The union gives us a voice.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. jackiebass

    The word could should be changed to will. Your complaint about union leadership selling out their members isn’t always accurate. I belonged to a teachers union for 25 years. The fact is that the union is only as good as it’s members.If the members won’t support their leadership the union is powerless. Also public employee unions are restricted by law. In nY state it is illegal for them to strike. The process to reach an arbitration agreement often takes several years. I say this as a result of belonging to a teachers union for many years.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You are straw manning me. I clearly said “many” not all. And your comment re members “not supporting their membership” has nada to do with CalPERS, where the union leadership ignores issues raised by members. It also applies broadly outside CalPERS, where unions have stood shoulder to shoulder with private equity as it loots private sector pensions and squeezes employment and wages, hurting state and local tax revenues and thus public sector wages, employment levels, and pensions.

      1. nilavar, MD

        Agree with Yves, 100% along with her observation on the initial paragraph!

        There are ‘vested’ interests (beside those at the K-street!) in both left/right, cons/liberal ++groups, which has been consistently triumphing over the interest of the general public, with a very few exceptions!

        The regulators are ‘selected’ from the very and every industries they are supposed to regulate with rotating doors with plum jobs/consultant/lobbyist waiting after their stint in the Govt!

        Dissent is set aside or ignored as ‘fake’ news! Identity politics and blind ideology confuses the issues!

        Just too depressing, to continue to write any more

        1. nonclassical

          …let’s all remember, while Wisconsinites took over state capital, through weeks of citizen protest, obama couldn’t come to Wisconsin – put his on the line…obvious political calculations took precedence…

    2. seabos84

      You’re using the standard teacher union “leader” framing – blaming us lowly dues paying working stiff nothings for not participating, & thereby lessening the organizations effectiveness.
      People don’t participate because processes are last minute, too much happens by the entrenched & insular for the entrenched & insular before the last minute processes happen, and, the processes are stuck in the 1930’s and 1950’s – back when tends of millions of people worked close to home or had family wage jobs.
      It will be interesting to see how many teachers in Seattle & in WA. bail on the current paradigm.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    Unions made several strategic mistakes that doomed them. First of all, the effective and radical CIO unions adopted the Gompers approach rather than continuing to advocate for issues beyond the wages and benefits of their own members. Second, and even worse, they delegated their task of pushing the country to the Left to the Democratic Party. Third, they focus like a laser on their dues check-off issues instead of organizing.

    Wobs never negotiated for dues check-off and maintenance fees. Instead, members go to meetings, pay their dues there, participate in meetings and vote to establish policy for their local and determine how their dues money is spent. That’s the way to build solidarity.

    1. hemeantwell

      First of all, the effective and radical CIO unions adopted the Gompers approach rather than continuing to advocate for issues beyond the wages and benefits of their own members. Second, and even worse, they delegated their task of pushing the country to the Left to the Democratic Party.

      Your account is far too voluntaristic in tone, and lends itself to victim blaming, at least in the sense that it ignores the beatings that made the cripple. This deterioration is usually described as the development of “business unionism.” It reflects the failure of the union left to be able to defend itself against the forces of the state and capital, e.g. Taft-Hartley, the anti-communist purges of the 40s and 50s. In his “Prisoners of the American Dream” Mike Davis discusses what you describe as task delegation as resulting from defeats and purges, with a leadership emerging that took the opportunistic path that was left open to it.

      To end on a cheerier note, I recommend reading Jane Mcalevey’s “No Shortcuts,” which draws on her successes as an organizer, explicitly using left organizing strategies, to argue for the possibility of union revitalization.

          1. Dune Navigator

            Gompers approach: “Pay your dues and mind your union card, it is your ticket to heaven. Don’t be a commie. Keep your head down. TRUST ME.”

            “Is a description often given to the dominant form of trade unionism in the United States, which refers to the concentration of trade unions on a narrow, economistic agenda pursued through collective wage bargaining. In the words of Samuel Gompers, an early American union leader, the objective of business unionism is ‘More’; that is, the improvement in the price of labour for unionized employees within a, largely accepted, capitalist economy. Business unionism is often counter-posed to welfare or social movement unionism, in which the objectives of trade unionism are couched broadly in terms of the pursuit of social change and methods that encompass political and community action (see also community unionism). For much of the post-war period, American unions were politically conservative and focused primarily on collective bargaining. They have always maintained a link with the Democratic Party, however, and the trade union movement in the USA has encompassed many diverse and radical elements that extend well beyond narrow business unionism.”

    2. nonclassical

      ..actually HMP, unions over 20 years or so, successfully won “retirement benefits” in lieu of rise in stagnant wages…it seemed an equitable trade, given political processes empowering corporations…appeared obvious to some those “contracts” (unlike Wall Street bonuses) would be repealed-no longer sacrosanct…

      Liz Warren raised hell when obama signed off on delegitimization of retirement benefits as “contractural”..

  3. dearieme

    As much as I oppose unions in theory I was a member of one for many years and even had a spell on the local committee. We members of that committee were united by three feelings. (i) Suspicion of the upper management and its intentions. (ii) Revulsion at some middle managers who abused their powers. (iii) Loathing for the officers of the union.

    On the whole (iii) was perhaps the most consistently discussed.

  4. laura

    Janus, or Freidrichs II, electric boogaloo is only the most current vehicle to eliminate public sector unions and destroy the democratic base including funding and GOTV.

    It also represents furthering of the politicization of the Supreme court. You don’t overturn 40 years of settled law and a unanimous case without an intended goal.

    I’m a union business agent and have worked on behalf of working people for 20 years. I’ve had my share of members and fee payers who don’t like unions for reasons such as abortion and “suspicion” as mentioned above. But I just do the best I can in representing members in disciplines, in negotiations and trying to improve their working lives. I never promise outcome, I always promise effort on their behalf. I witness the despair and the toll the modern global economy has taken. Every year, for the last 10 years has been a loss as costs shift to workers and medical premium increases act as a paycut. Case Deakins is visible among my blue collar skilled trades workers.

    I expect to be out of a job in 18 months.
    Apres Janus, the Fucking Deluge.

    1. Livius Drusus

      Thank you for your work. Too many union officials get a bad rap and not just from conservatives but from left-wing people too and I don’t think it is fair. Unions are fighting an uphill battle in a political and cultural environment that is extremely hostile to them. Most unions and union officials are doing the best they can given the massive disadvantages they are faced with.

      The whole point of destroying unions is to eliminate one of the few sources of funding and manpower for the cause of working-class people. I know some people on the left think unions are “sell outs” but the idea that unions can be replaced with the DSA or other small radical left groups is laughable. Also, eliminating unions will just push the Democrats even further to the right on economics as they seek more and more funding from Wall Street, Silicon Valley and other wealthy interests. Even Thomas Frank in his book Listen, Liberal, understood that pushing the unions out of their institutional role in the Democratic Party through well-meaning but misguided reforms (the McGovern Commission) ended up hurting the party in the long run and created an opening for the New Democrats.

  5. Livius Drusus

    Too much blame is placed on poor union leadership. Yes, unions have sometimes had bad leaders and unions have made bad political mistakes in the past, but American unions have had to operate in a much more hostile political environment than unions in most other industrialized countries post-World War II. For one thing, unions in most other industrialized countries did not have to contend with having a region of their country practicing semi-feudal racial politics (the American South). Southern Democrats helped to pass Taft-Hartley which was the real beginning of the end for American organized labor.

    Also, conservatism was severely damaged in much of the West after the end of World War II due to the mainstream Right’s collaboration with fascism The center-right parties that replaced the traditional conservatives following World War II were often much more progressive on economic issues like union rights than their traditional conservative predecessors. There was a world of difference between the pre-World War II Right and, say, the Christian Democratic parties in Germany and Italy. However, in the United States and the Anglophone world generally the Right was never severely defeated or discredited to the same extent.

    I doubt that various new organizing practices can help American unions without major changes in labor law. Some people on the Left might not like to hear this but politics matters a lot when it comes to labor unions and labor rights. “More organizing” doesn’t work unless the law favors organizing.

    This study by CEPR on differences in union strength by country show that the differences are largely political/legal.


    Another CEPR paper comparing labor rights in the United States and Canada.


    This article shows why issues like the composition of the judiciary are important but sadly too many people don’t care because topics like labor law are not sexy or exciting issues for most people.

  6. Ned

    Private industry unions are great in theory because there are rewards to the employer and employee through loyalty, training and job longevity. The employees have a long term stake in the success of the company.

    Public employee unions are bullshit, because there is no profit in public works or services, except to the usual suspects of private contractors, builders and consultants that do cost plus work. The arrogant human mediocrities in our local city hall that we are forced to deal with are a living testament to why public employee unions are evil.

    However, paying forced union dues, under duress, to a union that then militates against ones own promotion or advancement through its encouragement of affirmative action is wrong.

    Imagine a union poster in the break room that said
    “Our union encourages the hiring and promotion of white people.”
    Tens of millions of today’s white workers and retired people saw that exact poster as teenagers and young adults, except that the category check offs were different. Yet another reason why Trump, was elected. Memories are long.

    1. Synoia

      Unions exist because of Management. Unions exist to protect workers from the actions of Management.

      You argument is nonsense because Public Employees are subject to Management, who, being human, are not saints, and also being Politicians are driven by many pressures.

      For example a Public Employee is doing their job when saying “no to a constituent,” and needs protection to do their job in the Public Interest.

      If you believe otherwise, please post a list of Politicians who are ultimately public employees’ managers, who are also candidates for Sainthood.

      1. Ned

        They don’t say “no”.

        They say “Pay more money, fill out more paperwork and let us exercise control over your life after you pay our salaries.”

        Please post a list of politicians who are direct supervisors of public employees without the middle level managers that were long ago eliminated in private sector jobs.

        1. pretzelattack

          so no public employee tells a wealthy constituent no? and you blame unions for “controlling your life” and not the politicians who make the rules? revealing.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Yes, it is legislators that depend on wealthy donors. Help me.

            For starters, judges and any agency that issues fines tells “wealthy constituents no” all the time. The fact that the LA City prosecutor initiated the fake accounts case against Wells Fargo, both one of the biggest employers in California as well as headquartered in that state, would disprove your theory. The CFPB and OCC joined his investigation.

            Here is a list of 2017 settlements to date from the Air Resources Board. They seem to be violations related to the use of transportation equipment, meaning trucks:


    2. jgordon

      I absolutely agree with you. Public unions are just another self-serving scheme for politicians to buy votes with other people’s money, just like welfare. When this sort of obvious corruption becomes as rampant as it is today, eventually we just have to cut off the gangrenous limbs and hope that staves off the collapse for a while longer.

      Also your suggestion about affirmative action is extremely good. Just to keep things fair, anyone who does not directly benefit from the affirmative action policies of these organizations should be completely exempt from paying into them. If that seems to much to ask, I have a suggestion for you Ned. Recently I became a fourth wave intersectional feminist and subsequently decided that my identity is African American masculine-presenting transgendered lesbian, despite (deceptively) appearing to be a cis white male. So until some fairness is brought back into the system I will be taking full advantage of any affirmative action programs I can find. Decide that you are a different gender and race like I have and you at least won’t be discriminated against. When sanity returns to the system, just switch back. It’s easy and hassle-free with intersectional feminism.

      1. pretzelattack

        how does this “scheme” work exactly, and what distinguishes public unions from farmers, business owners, hell oligarchs who band together to pursue their own interests and goals? and why do you people focus on affirmative action and not the giant transfer of wealth from the middle class upward?

    3. pretzelattack

      citizens have a long term stake in the success of the country. those millions of white people you claim have long memories, in many cases in the rust belt, voted for obama. and this focus on “profit” to determine whether something is worth keeping is just straight neoliberalism. in other words, useless and counter to the interests of the working class.

      1. Ned

        And as part of that collective memory, Obama them he betrayed. So they voted for Trump in large numbers. Yeah, I know what you are going to say…

        That’s “shared profits” as in better pay and benefits when a private employer does well, that’s the opposite of neoliberalism. Sorry I wasn’t more clear.

  7. Sluggeaux

    While I agree with Yves that SEIU and CSEA are in the wrong supporting CalPERS staff and creating unconstitutional non-secret balloting for their rubber-stamp board, I spent 20 years working at a high level in a non-affiliated bargaining unit representing about 300 government lawyers in the biggest county-level CalPERS employer, and the problem is somewhat more subtle. During the tech-bubble of the ‘90’s, CalPERS gave state, county, and city employers a “contribution holiday” that workers didn’t share. My employer spent 8 years of skipped CalPERS contributions on a massive expansion of the county hospital system — which now has to be staffed by highly-paid doctors and nurses who are also CalPERS members. This contribution holiday and expansion of government is what is now crashing the system, and the unions rightly feel that employees shouldn’t have to pay for it. Sadly, it’s easier for them to “extend-and-pretend” at CalPERS than to get politicians to sell-off public assets.

    That being said, I also spent a decade working with employee groups to force SEIU to be more representative of its members and the broader labor movement, rather than putting all its energy and resources into stomping on member insurgency and engaging in high-level financial manipulation of Democratic Party hacks. My experience was that GOP hacks, before they became addicted to money from the inherited-wealth crowd, were just as susceptible to “persuasion” if you made the correct approach!

    The inherited-wealth oligarchs created by the Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama repeal of the estate tax have read Citizens United, which is actually based on dissents by Douglas and Warren during the Taft-Hartley union-stomping era. The entire basis of the decision was to allow collective political spending — while declaring that congress can constitutionally require disclosure of the source of the money. Congress declined to require themselves to disclose the source of their graft, with the full support of Obama (who didn’t want to disclose that he was in fact a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pritzkers and Goldman-Sachs). Now the inherited-wealth oligarchy is openly attacking the ability of anyone else other than them to spend political money collectively. A fine mess.

    1. nonclassical

      ..”citizens united” as sited by “supreme court” fundamentalists referred to 1880’s legislative language during reconstruction era. However, language referred was not within legislation, rather within preamble to legislation…as defined, pp 200-210,

      “Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900”, by Jack Beatty

      “Age of Betrayal is a brilliant reconsideration of America’s first Gilded Age, when war-born dreams of freedom and democracy died of their impossibility. Focusing on the alliance between government and railroads forged by bribes and campaign contributions, Jack Beatty details the corruption of American political culture that, in the words of Rutherford B. Hayes, transformed “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” into “a government by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations.”


  8. Mike R.

    Unions had a place in our history back when business abused (physically, work environment, etc.) employees.
    With proper safety (OSHA) laws (and enforced vigoursly), unions should be made illegal. Unions in the 60’s and 70’s ran many of our industries into the ground from a competitive standpoint. Public service unions are even worse in that government in general is usually inefficient and plodding and then unions provided excessive pay and benefits to boot.
    Look, the world today is competitive. If you don’t want to work for a company because pay and benefits aren’t good enough, fine. Go find a job that is. Again, as long as the safety and health of the job is acceptable (one thing needs to be aggressively verified by government), pay and benefits should be deteremined by the marketplace, personal productivity, etc.


    No sympathy,
    It was he public sector unions who helped shaft bernie Saunders so killary could win the nominination
    The unions have repeatedly done the GOTV for the democratic party, and have been stabbed in the back by them e.g. NAFTA, CAFTA,TPP, CARD CHECK. Even the Wisconsin unions sold out their members, more concerned with collecting fees than in their working conditions.
    Why would anyone join these incompetent idiots who do nothing for the actual members, but sell them out

Comments are closed.