Top officials in the public-sector labor movement say it is only a matter of time before right-to-work-type rules are applied their unions, according to the former head of the Vermont branch of the American Federation of Teachers.
The officials fear that it is inevitable that the Supreme Court will end the unions' power to force workers to pay them fees for representing them in collective bargaining. Nor do the officials know how to respond to the coming change.
That's according to Ben Johnson, former head of United Professions AFT Vermont, the union's state umbrella organization. Johnson left AFT last year after a decade of union activism to found a consultancy group called Progressive Labor Solutions. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, he said people within the movement were never prepared for the resurgence of right-to- work laws, which prohibit union-management contracts that force all workers to join a union or pay it a regular fee. Unions called them "security clauses."
"Right-to-work didn't feel like a relevant topic until [Republican Gov.] Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2011. After that it was terrifying," Johnson said, characterizing the consensus among union leaders. Overcoming strong union opposition, Walker pushed through changes to the state's public-sector union laws that year that effectively gave state and local government employees right-to-work protections.
The second major blow came when the Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn in 2014 that state-subsidized home healthcare workers weren't eligible to unionize. The decision signaled that the court was re-examining old precedents regarding public-sector unions.
Six states have adopted the laws since 2013, putting the total at 28. Union leaders hate the laws, which are associated with membership losses and depleted treasuries. Republicans and business groups have pushed for the revival.
"I remember a conference call-in with Randi [Weingarten, AFT's president] after Harris v. Quinn where she said we had about a year before right-to-work [principles] were applied to the public sector," Johnson said.
That was apparently on the verge of happening in 2016 when the Supreme Court heard the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenged the union's right to demand representation fees from nonmembers. However, the court split 4-4 in the case after Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the existing precedent intact. The unions believe that the high court will take up a similar case soon.
"There was a feeling that we had gotten a reprieve for another year. But that's all it was. Folks knew that there were other cases in the pipeline," Johnson said.
The unions' problem is that they don't know how to respond to the renewal of right-to-work. Until recently most states that had the law were mainly in the South, a region that never had strong union movements. Only recently have the laws come to states with long labor traditions such as Indiana and Michigan. Labor leaders have never had to think about it or formulate an argument against it.
"You never say right-to-work in the union movement because it is a great example of naming something. Pretty often you cannot even explain right-to-work to union members without them thinking it sounds like a pretty good idea," Johnson said. Leaders struggled to come up with a euphemism that would make it sound bad. The most commonly used one is "right to work for less," which tries to present the laws as weakening unions and therefore workers' bargaining strength.
Johnson said the laws are being pushed primarily to weaken unions. But he also believes that security clauses have contributed to the decline of unions. In too many cases, the automatic payment system has allowed unions to become disconnected from their members. That partly explains why Wisconsin unions, for example, were unable to rally enough support to stop Walker's changes to the laws, he said.