Wayne Harris spent the past two years aggressively recruiting new members to his statewide school employee union, knowing it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court would restrict labor's ability to collect fees from workers.
More often than not, he got a yes. More than 92 percent of the 240,000 public school workers represented by the California School Employees Association now belong to it.
“We knew the decision was coming. We just planned for it. When we show our members the benefits of being a part of the union, they realize the value of it and they sign up,” said Harris, 35, a systems administrator at the Woodland Joint Unified School District.
The decision the union knew would come arrived last week in Janus vs. AFSCME, in which the Supreme Court ruled that labor organizations are inherently political and workers cannot be compelled to support them financially.
Now, California public workers have a choice for the first time in decades about whether they want some of their wages to support the unions that bargain for their contracts and provide legal services when they or their colleagues get in trouble.
Around the state, some public workers are celebrating the end of so-called fair share fees while others are buckling down, calling peers and trying to sign up more members.
"We have to sell it to employees. We have to educate our members on what unions do," said Claudia McFarland, 53, a Sacramento County mental health counselor who credits the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for negotiating a contract that helped her keep a job through the recession.
Until the Janus decision, public employee unions for 41 years were allowed to charge fees to workers they represent even if the employee did not want to participate in a labor organization. The fees were supposed to cover the cost of negotiating contracts and providing services to members.
They typically cost between 70 and 99 percent of full membership, frustrating some workers who disliked their labor organizations and viewed the fees as a subsidy for their union's political endeavors.
“Their politics and mine were polar opposites,” said Dianne Knox, 70, a retired state contract analyst whose lawsuit challenging political fees SEIU Local 1000 levied in 2005 reached the Supreme Court and became one of the precursors to the Janus decision.
“I feel that if employees want to belong to the union, terrific — let them belong to the union, but I don’t think they should be forced to pay,” she said.
Will California laws keep workers in unions?
It's hard to tell how the ruling will play out in California.
In some states, union membership plummeted after their legislatures passed laws banning labor groups from collecting fair share fees. The most dramatic drop occurred in Wisconsin, where union membership plummeted by almost 40 percent after the state passed a law in 2011 that severely restricted public employee unions.
California, by contrast, has been passing laws to help unions hold on to members.
Last year, it enacted a law that guarantees unions access to new public employees. This year, it adopted a law that compels public agencies to defer to union policies if workers ask to quit paying dues. That usually means unions will get a few days to try to talk a member out of separating.
Immediately after the Janus decision, state government's largest union reported that it received an uptick in membership.
"I think we’re doing well," said Yvonne Walker, president of the union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000. "We have had tens of thousands of members sign up to recommit to their union. They understand what this is and they understand what Local 1000 is."
Elsewhere, a handful of libertarian groups that want to curtail union influence over state spending are running campaigns to encourage public workers to break with their unions. The California Policy Center, for instance, reported that 1,000 public employees reached out to it by phone, and 500 completed a form that would help them quit paying dues.
'Will you give back the benefits?'
The Sacramento Bee conducted an informal poll in its State Worker Facebook group asking whether employees would stay in their union or opt out after the Supreme Court decision. About 70 percent of the 493 people who participated said they'd stay in their unions.
"Finally! Now if only I could get back the money I was forced to pay," one state employee wrote.
A state water engineer replied, "Will you give back the benefits and raises your union fought for as well?"
Nearly one of every five public sector union members works in California, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. No other state has more public sector union members than California.
The state's public sector union membership in labor unions has grown during the last four decades, even as private sector union membership has shrunk.
In 1983, private sector union members outnumbered public sector union members in California by a two-to-one margin. But by 2017, there were 1.1 million private sector union members in California — and 1.1 million public sector union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which was compiled by researchers at Georgia State University and Trinity University.
Republicans and some anti-labor groups view public sector unions as too powerful in the state. They point to unions' ability to squelch Gov. Schwarzenegger's 2005 government-reform initiatives and the rising cost of public employee compensation in the state to make their case.
"Unions have had a monopoly on California politics for far too long," Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle said after the ruling. The Janus "decision will stop unions from taking money away from hardworking people, without their consent, to push a political agenda that has made California unaffordable."
Last year, the state spent $18.6 billion in wages to state workers, up from about $15 billion in 2010. Pension costs are climbing, too, as public agencies try to catch up from recession-era losses and years when they chose not to put money into their retirement funds. Gov. Jerry Brown's new budget estimates that wages will increase another $1.3 billion over the next year.
California public employee unions have a spate of new, plush contracts to point to if workers ask them whether they're worth the money.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for instance, just struck a deal with Brown that netted a 5 percent raise for the 27,000 workers it represents. State engineers, scientists and attorneys have recent 5 percent raises, too.
Bigger unions, like SEIU Local 1000, struck deals that netted raises in the range of 3.5 percent to 4 percent a year, with bigger wage increases for some select job categories.
"It’s fair to say we had some recent history of significant success of receiving a good contract that’s fair for teachers," said David Fisher president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. Its members authorized a strike late last year amid tense contract talks that led to back-dated raises for educators. "People see the power of being united and how that would have been impossible to do without unity."
Aside from the money, some workers have been talking up other benefits they received from their unions, like legal representation.
'Your life can change in a minute'
Sal Martinez, an agent at a state law enforcement agency, was dismissed from his job in 2016 after the Sutter County District Attorney's Office filed charges against him accusing him of assault with a deadly weapon and brandishing a firearm.
The charges stemmed from a February 2016 accident in which another driver hit Martinez's car. Martinez said the man fled and Martinez instinctively chased after the driver. He raised his handgun when he thought the driver would speed away.
Martinez was out of work for 18 months while the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association defended him in court and fought to get him back on duty. A jury acquitted him.
Martinez said he could not have afforded the legal representation on his own. His experience has shaped his conversations with coworkers who've talked about leaving their unions.
"You may be giving yourself a pay raise" by quitting paying dues, he said. "But your life can change in a minute. You don’t know when that’s going to happen. To me, you’d be really reckless if you leave the union."
Sacramento Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.