Last fall, the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians added a $6.50 monthly assessment for members for the duration of President Donald Trump's first term in office.
The organization, which represents mental health workers at state hospitals, wanted to get more involved in California elections to counteract "anti-union" policies that it expected under the Trump administration, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision on dues for nonmembers.
Like the psychiatric technicians, California's public employee unions have been preparing for years for the blow that finally landed last week when the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the "fair share fees" they require from employees that benefit from their bargaining representation but do not want to belong.
Union leaders say they have positioned themselves well to withstand the ruling, known as Janus v. AFSCME, which concerns a different pot of money than the elections and lobbying funds that have made organized labor one of the influential forces in California politics. But facing potentially dramatic impacts in the years ahead if membership declines, and with it their dues, unions are also revamping their operations for the 2018 election cycle and beyond.
"We have to be smarter with our money than we've ever been before," said Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation, the union umbrella group.
While California immediately stopped collecting "fair share fees" from state workers, the political ramifications of the Janus decision will not be entirely clear for at least another election cycle. Unions have already set their budgets for the year, so they will not be left scrambling for campaign cash before November.
They are undertaking difficult discussions, however, about whether to pull back slightly this fall and hang on to more money for future election cycles.
Alma Hernandez, political director of the massive Service Employees International Union California, said her team is thinking about how to make "our dollars stretch through 2020."
They also looked for savings in their administrative expenses to free up as much money as possible for political activities: SEIU's Sacramento office no longer has the Senate and Assembly's daily files delivered each morning. All union-issued cellphones are now on a shared data plan.
"It may feel like a little bit," Hernandez said of the changes, which amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars in a budget of millions. "But to me, it's a mail piece."
Hernandez said labor's election opponents, primarily in the deep-pocketed business community, have often tried to spread out the playing field and make unions spend down their reserves each year.
"We're going to be more disciplined. We're not going to spend resources where we don't feel we need to," she said.
Republican businessman John Cox's advance to the gubernatorial runoff over Democratic former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was a boon for unions, who likely won't have to spend as much to help labor-backed Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom win in November.
So was a deal last week where proponents pulled from the ballot a beverage industry-backed initiative that would have made it more difficult to raise taxes, in exchange for a moratorium on local soda taxes. That race could have run in the tens of millions of dollars, though labor leaders say the negotiation was more about avoiding an existential threat to municipal budgets than saving money on a campaign.
But several major fights still loom, including the superintendent of public instruction race, a priority for education employee unions like the California Teachers Association. The labor federation is working with liberal mega-donor Tom Steyer on a large field program to flip more than half a dozen California House seats held by vulnerable Republicans that could help determine control of Congress.
That will probably mean less help for other labor allies seeking statewide office, like state Sen. Ed Hernandez, who is running for lieutenant governor against Eleni Kounalakis, a fellow Democrat with deep personal wealth to boost her campaign. Sen. Ricardo Lara, in his bid for insurance commissioner against independent Steve Poizner, who previously held the position, could also get squeezed out.
Smith said union delegates would be weighing those questions when they gather in July for their convention to determine labor federation endorsements.
"As much time as we've had to prepare for this, once it happens, you're never as prepared as you hoped to be," he said.
California public employee unions, buoyed by sympathetic politicians in the governor’s office and the Legislature, feel better equipped to weather the effects of Janus than other states. Smaller and more narrowly focused unions, like those representing public safety officers, are also feeling more optimistic, because they have historically maintained higher levels of membership than expansive organizations of state workers like SEIU.
But Gary Messing, an attorney who represents public safety unions like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and Cal Fire Local 2881, noted that organized labor ultimately rises and falls together.
"If public sector unions in general are struggling, there will be less support for issues where there is broad agreement," Messing said. Many of them are expecting fights at the ballot box, sooner rather than later, over their pensions and other benefits. "They will not have the alliances and the ability to act collectively to the same degree."
That's why labor leaders are trying to use the Janus decision as an organizing tool — an opportunity to prove the value of their unions, recommit employees to joining as members and get them more involved politically.
Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association, which represents classified school employees like janitors and bus drivers, said he reached out to members after the Supreme Court ruling to ask for contributions to the union's political action committee and received a tremendous response.
"This situation has been a wake-up call. It has certainly woken my union up," Low said. "I have not seen this type of energy in a long, long time."