President's Corner

July 2018 FIGHT BACK

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President’s Corner

For the better part of the past year, we have been speaking at meetings and in the Engineer about the Janus v. AFSCME case facing the United States Supreme Court. This case has been carefully set up by anti-union special interest groups along with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner in an effort to weaken unions by allowing workers to pay nothing while forcing the union to represent them. If successful, we explained, this case carried the potential to make “right-to-work” a national law for public-sector employees.

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Janus on June 27, in favor of the Mark Janus, a state employee who did not want to pay fair share fees to cover the cost of his representation. This decision fundamentally changes the way courts look at bargaining for public employees. In the past, union members have had the opportunity to resign membership and stop paying for things like lobbying and political activities, but have always had to pay the costs associated with negotiating and enforcing the contracts. The logic the majority used in this decision is that since public employers are all government entities, even negotiating things like boot pay is political in nature. All public bargaining is now protected by the First Amendment and therefore, workers can’t be compelled to pay a union to speak for them.

Of course, the First Amendment works both ways. This argument opens a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences for the enemies of labor, and specifically the enemies of public employees. Billionaire-funded organizations that have pushed to limit collective bargaining by teachers and other public employees will now see their accomplishments under attack using the very same First Amendment arguments that they originally developed.

As you know, Local 150 has never been the type of organization to sit idly by and wait for an attack to come. We’ve expected this decision for months, and we filed several federal lawsuits advancing our theories back in February, so our counter-attack is already well underway. If the other side is celebrating this decision now, they will soon see that it comes at a cost. You can read more about these lawsuits in the Legal Brief column on page 21.

There is no doubt that this decision will have a negative impact on the American labor movement. Many public-sector unions that already have large contingents of non-members are likely to see their membership drop further. The resulting drop in resources will force unions to make difficult choices in order to provide equal representation to members and non-members alike, which has been a requirement of federal law for decades.

Forcing us to make these tough choices, was of course the purpose of this lawsuit and the purpose of “right-to-work” laws in general. The end goal is to eliminate unions’ ability to participate in the political process, and cut short the revenue that the Democratic Party generally sees from unions at the national level. In fact, only moments after the decision came down, President Trump joyously declared the harm it would do to Democratic fundraising. If you ever thought “right-to-work” was actually about helping workers, disabuse yourself of that notion. This is pure politics, and workers are nothing more than collateral damage.

While I by no means take any comfort in this decision, I wholeheartedly disagree with those on both sides of this issue who are calling this a death knell for unions. In my career alone, organized labor’s epitaph has been written more times than I can count.  Less than a century ago, strikers were being gunned down for taking a stand. Corporations and politicians have targeted us for decades with every weapon they could dream up, yet here we are, still on our feet. Unions have survived a hell of a lot worse than a partisan judicial attack, and we’ll endure this speedbump as well.

Local 150 will not be set back by this decision for the same reason that we’ve gotten stronger while the labor movement has lost steam – we deliver for our members. Local 150 is often described as an “aggressive” union, and that reputation is a badge of honor for every single member. Our foundation rests upon the belief that workers have to be united and strong to be treated fairly, so we have fortified ourselves to become as strong as possible. We fight hard for good wages, benefits and working conditions. When groups organize with Local 150, we only make promises that we can deliver. The service we furnish is unparalleled, as the Public Sector column on page 11 explains in more detail.

When the Great Recession left members reeling with few prospects for employment, we knew that generating work would take time, but that members needed immediate help with basic costs of maintaining insurance and keeping food on the table.  Local 150 dug into its reserves – our savings – to help members cover healthcare costs and keep families insured. We started the Local 150 Food Bank and distributed thousands of boxes of food to members whose financial struggles were truly painful. By the time things began to turn around, we had nearly spent our entire financial reserve on food and healthcare. There wasn’t a moment that I second-guessed our decisions, because looking out for the membership during hard times is what this organization is about.

Our efforts in support of infrastructure work led to massive capital investment plans that put thousands of members to work in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Those same efforts continue today, and Local 150 members go to work every day on projects that are the direct result of our union’s advocacy.

The financial crisis of a decade ago left our pension fund and all others greatly diminished by massive losses in the markets. We didn’t waste any time figuring out a plan to restore it to full health as soon as possible. Today, there is light at the end of that tunnel because we tackled the problem.

The same goes for healthcare, which is seeing political infighting and outright greed drive cost increases that are unsustainable. We are ahead of the curve once again, ready to face this issue because we created a marketplace-style healthcare plan and built a free health center for the membership to rely on. While costs have skyrocketed, we’ve been able to buck these trends and slow cost growth because we looked ahead, saw trouble, and once again tackled the problem.

Local 150 has always stood out as a union that is the first into a fight. Whether it is a grievance affecting a single member or a threat to an entire industry, we serve our members with strength and ingenuity, and as a result, members take pride in being a part of Local 150. Last year, we had 5,000 applicants for around 200 spots in our apprenticeship program. Being a member of this union is something people fight for, and those of us lucky enough to be a part of it should never forget how fortunate we are. As the son of an immigrant Local 150 member, I owe everything I’ve got to this union, and I take issue when others don’t recognize the role it plays in their lives. 

This was the kind of partisan political outcome that we’ve expected since the day Donald Trump appointed ultra-conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Court. The right wing fought to withhold the judicial appointment until after the 2016 election, and decisions like this are why. The Supreme Court has become a weapon of the far right.

Because of this decision, we may have some public-sector members choose to stop paying dues or fair-share fees and take a free ride on the backs of all the loyal members who value what our union does. Be aware that this decision also gives Local 150 the option to withhold representational services from you if you choose to take a free ride.

We filed a lawsuit earlier this year seeking to relieve the union of its obligation to represent free-riders, and members who support this organization can rest assured that we will explore every option available to us to ensure that members who contribute nothing receive the same in return. It isn’t fair for dues-paying members to subsidize the representation of those who want to cheat the system and save a buck, and our belief in fair treatment of members will be applied. If you have a right not to associate with us, we also have a right not to associate with you, and we will exercise that right. If a bargaining unit has multiple members exercise this choice, we will be forced to consider whether or not we can continue to represent the group at all.

Never forget what this union is. It is a group of men and women working together to protect ourselves and each other. It can only remain strong as long as we are all committed to working together. We’ve never wavered in the face of a fight, and this decision will not change that. When they try to come after the private sector, as they surely will, we will meet them at full strength. We’ve got nothing to fear when we are united. Our collective power can withstand any court decision, political attack, or shady contractor. Our enemies may have forgotten that, but they’ve given us a great opportunity to remind them.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.