The State Worker

Sweet contracts, tricky rules help California unions hold on after court loss

Darrell Steinberg reacts to the fair share decision by Supreme Court

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg joined labor and community leaders in expressing their thoughts against the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended a 41-year precedent that allowed public sector unions to collect fair share fees.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg joined labor and community leaders in expressing their thoughts against the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended a 41-year precedent that allowed public sector unions to collect fair share fees.

California public employee unions can celebrate a little good news in the months since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that stripped them of millions of dollars in revenue and threatened their influence in the state:

So far, workers are not leaving their unions in high numbers. In fact, some labor organizations are gaining members.

Payroll data from the State Controller’s Office show that the unions representing California state employees have collectively gained members since the Supreme Court in June issued a decision that banned public sector unions from collecting fees from workers who don’t choose to join them.

The 5-4 decision in Janus vs. AFSCME ended a 41-year precedent that had permitted labor organizations to charge so-called “fair share” fees to workers who were covered by their contracts but did not sign up for them. Losing those fees dealt an immediate financial hit to unions and raised the possibility that more workers would opt out of labor organizations.

Instead, state worker unions notched a slight uptick in membership since the ruling, gaining about 300 workers among the 185,000 rank-and-file employees in state government. There are 131,410 dues-paying union members in California state government today, up from 131,102 in June. The numbers do not include university, school or local government employees.

“We had a concerted campaign across the labor movement to really show members the value of their union, and I think we’re seeing the value of that campaign now,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation. “Members aren’t dropping in big numbers as predicted. In fact, were’ seeing more enthusiasm than ever.”

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In general, the state worker unions that gained members since the Janus ruling happened to be negotiating new contracts this summer.

The state’s booming economy helped unions that represent correctional officers, engineers and scientists strike deals for significant raises without any new concessions. Their membership growth offset losses in other unions.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for instance, gained more than 1,500 members between June and August. It passed a one-year contract that gave the 28,000 workers it represents a 5 percent raise.

Professional Engineers in California Government gained about 340 members this summer. “PECG delivers,” said Ted Toppin, the union’s executive director. The union negotiated a two-year contract with a base raise of 8.5 percent and some sweeteners that included longevity pay for longtime workers. “PECG does deliver competitive pay, pension protection, the best health care in the state and job protection from outsourcing.”

Pay, pensions and outsourcing

The full impact of the Janus decision might not be clear for several years because unions have some inherent advantages, at least for retaining members.

Most public sector union contracts have clauses that prevent workers from quitting until the month before the labor agreement ends. Some unions earlier this year released new agreements that compel members to commit to membership for at least one year.

Both of those membership clauses are intended to buffer unions from extreme swings in membership and to discourage workers from joining them only when they’re in trouble and facing workplace discipline.

Two of the biggest unions in the state, SEIU Local 1000 and the California Teachers Association, say they’ve moved away from that model. At least for now, they’re letting workers quit if they ask.

“Some have dropped. It hasn’t been this big stampede that maybe our opponents hoped it’d be,” said Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, which represents more than 300,000 K-12 teachers.

You can check out, but you can’t leave

At least one union has adopted a policy of letting members quit, but continuing to charge them for representation.

AFSCME Local 3299, which represents University of California health workers, is charging former members a service fee that’s equivalent to full dues. John de los Angeles, spokesman for AFSCME 3299, said the union’s contract allows for the service fees and that members agreed to them when they joined.

“While fair share fees were required by law as a condition of employment for nonmembers, voluntary service fees are just that—voluntary. When workers agree to pay voluntary service fees, they’re committing to maintaining the strength of the organization in order to protect and expand the workplace rights that we’ve fought to win as a union,” he said.

The California Policy Center, a libertarian organization that is running a campaign to encourage public employees to quit their unions, discovered the fee. An AFSCME-represented worker received a letter on Oct. 5 describing the charge when the employee tried to quit the union. The worker gave the letter to the policy center.

Mark Bucher, the center’s chief executive, said the new service fee appears to contradict the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus. His organization is preparing lawsuits on behalf of workers who’ve been unable to quit their unions since the Janus decision.

“Get out means no longer pay money to the union,” he said. “That’s where they’re making the big mistake. They think they’ve come up with a scheme. ‘Yeah, we’ll let you out, but you have to keep paying us money.’ That was the exact holding in the Supreme Court case.”

Tommy Few, a Ventura teacher, is one of the public employees working with the California Policy Center to figure out how to separate from his union. He signed a membership card in February that commits him to United Teachers Los Angeles for at least 12 months.

He’s a conservative-leaning voter who doesn’t like the Democratic candidates favored by his union, and he’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to leave the organization. “They don’t want to let me go because they want my money. They don’t give two cents about

Tom the person,” said Few, 53.

‘Flocking to the union’

Around the state, public sector unions are rethinking how they promote themselves to prepare for the day when their contracts expire and more workers can choose to separate from them. Those pitches tend to center on workplace issues rather than political endorsements.

SEIU Local 1000 earlier this summer held a board meeting where it set a goal of persuading 75 percent of the 96,000 workers it represents to join the union, up from about 60 percent today. Its recent weekly newsletters prominently feature the services it offers to members.

“We provide the most extraordinary service. You’re not going to get a better a service for a better cost,” said Coby Pizzotti, a lobbyist for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians. The union has a high membership rate north of 90 percent. It connects with workers by having its stewards walk the halls of the state hospitals and prisons where the mental health workers help treat troubled patients.

A good contract helps, too. In Stanislaus County, local government employees represented by SEIU Local 521 are holding demonstrations to press for wage increases in an upcoming contract. Union leader Kate Selover said membership has held at 94 percent, and hundreds of employees joined her at a Board of Supervisors meeting recently to make their case.

“Since the Janus decision, I’ve seen people flocking to the union,” she said. “We’ve signed up more members than we lost.”

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