California public employee unions will feel an almost immediate financial hit from Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision barring them from collecting so-called fair share fees, depriving them of dues from tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of workers.
Later, they’ll face a drawn-out battle with well-funded anti-labor organizations that plan to pick off their dues-paying members with campaigns encouraging workers to save money by quitting their unions.
"This is new in California. We've not experienced this kind of organized campaigning" aimed at discouraging public employees from joining unions, said Eric Heins, president of the massive California Teachers Association.
The State Controller’s Office said on Wednesday that it would cease deducting fair share fees from the paychecks of state workers who are not full union members. Employees will notice the change in their paychecks for their work in July, with many of them saving about $1,000 a year that they had paid in labor fees.
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Fair share fees are supposed to cover the costs of representing workers except for the money unions spend on overt political campaigning. They tend to be about 70 to 99 percent of full dues, according to unions.
The Supreme Court decision held that public employee unions are inherently political, and people who disagree with them cannot be compelled to support them financially.
“Finally, teachers and other employees in the public sector have the freedom to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to fund unions,” said Rebecca Friedrichs, 53, a former Orange County teacher who filed a previous lawsuit challenging fair share fees collected by the California Teachers Association.
Fair share payers are not union members, so the change will be automatic for them. Union members in most cases will not be able to quit their organizations instantly. The agreements they make to join a union usually give them a window once a year to "opt out" of membership.
The Freedom Foundation, a well-funded nonprofit organization that is critical of unions, plans to target dues-paying union members in California. It's sending email blasts to public school teachers instructing them on how to quit a union and is making plans to leave printed information at government offices throughout Southern California.
"This is a game-changer for politics in California," said Samuel Han, the foundation's California director, meaning unions will have fewer resources to support Democratic-leaning campaigns and policies.
As of this week, about 27 percent of California state employees and two-fifths of California State University employees pay fair share fees, meaning they do not belong to the unions that represent them but are charged a fee because they benefit from labor representation.
That’s 47,000 state workers and 23,000 California State University workers who will no longer pay fair share fees.
Local governments all over California will be changing their payrolls to make the same kind of change the controller announced, magnifying the ruling’s impact beyond state government.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former labor attorney, criticized the court decision as a political "power play" undercutting workers' rights.
"The unions themselves are going to find ways to increase their membership and what that is going to require from us and other states is to ensure they have the ability and the accessibility to make their case to members. We have to fight," he said.
Public employee union leaders expect membership will drop in the near future but will rise again if workers realize they're losing influence over contracts and working conditions.
“This Supreme Court decision will not define us. We’re going to continue the good work we’ve been doing,” said Yvonne Walker, president of state government’s largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.
Her union represents about 96,000 workers, with fewer than 60,000 of them paying full dues. The union has been building financial reserves and plans to remain a formidable organization. It’s crowing about a contract it negotiated last year that netted a base wage increase of 11.5 percent over 42 months.
California unions for years have been preparing for a decision like the one the court handed down on Wednesday in Janus vs. AFSCME. They expected that Friedrichs’ case would have had the same outcome two years ago, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s death left the court tied at the time.
Unions have used that time to cut expenses, save money and connect with employees to boost their membership. They’ve also lobbied for laws that guarantee them access to new workers and ban agencies from handing public employees’ personal contact information to outside groups.
Heins said about 10 percent of teachers represented by CTA are fair share payers. Some of them mistakenly thought they were full union members because they saw union fees deducted from the paychecks. The union has been trying to get them to sign up.
Ted Toppin, executive director for the union that represents state engineers, said labor organizations going forward will have to make a case that they deliver for their members.
The Professional Engineers in California Government "has a strong and healthy membership, and we’re going to do everything we can to bring that small percentage of (fair share payers) into the membership because PECG has delivered for them."
Other unions have extremely high ratios of full dues-paying members. Public safety unions in particular tend to reach membership rates of 90 percent or more.
But they're worried about the Janus decision, too. The largest unions, like SEIU and CTA, have so many members that they can pour resources into statewide political campaigns over hot-button topics like public employee pensions.
"We can't look at this as an attack on firefighters or our union," said Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters. "Police officers and the (correctional) peace officers association shouldn't look at it that way, either. This is an attack on organized labor in California. We have to stand arm in arm with our brothers and sisters in SEIU and our brothers and sisters in CTA."