The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Supreme Court’s threat to gut unions is giving the labor movement new life

It took mortal danger for some unions to realize they've taken their membership for granted.

AFSCME's education director Rachel Panciera facilitates a discussion on what the public doesn't know about government workers' jobs. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

The last time someone tried to call a lunchtime union meeting at the Upper Marlboro Parole and Probation office, things didn’t go well. Even with free food.

"Nobody reported to the conference room, because they thought someone was there to sell them insurance,” remembers Monica Harris, who works there. But she, at least, had made it to an all-day activist training run by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees at a union hall in Baltimore.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the union, because they haven’t seen anyone,” Harris explained to a circle of workers and union staff. “Right now, we’re in a place where we need rebuilding. It’s not just about lunch.”

They nodded understandingly. Stories like this are common in Maryland, a state where most local government workplaces are “agency shop,” meaning that every employee must pay fees to the union whether or not they choose to become a full member.

That comfortable situation might not last for much longer. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take a case that could eliminate agency fees altogether for public sector unions, functionally making all of them them right-to-work overnight — an existential threat.

“Right now, we’re in a place where we need rebuilding. It’s not just about lunch.”
— AFSCME member Monica Harris

“I think that fundamentally this is about weakening unions,” says Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, of Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. “There’s a recognition among those aligned behind this initiative that whatever the ostensible reasons, their understanding is that unions will suffer.”

Public sector unions haven’t been sitting passively by as the judicial juggernaut approaches. Rather, they’ve embarked on an broad “internal organizing” effort, reaching workers who may have been paying agency fees for years and never had any contact with a union representative.

Several unions, like the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, have been turning their recruiting efforts inwards lately. But none are as comprehensive as AFSCME, which says that it has signed up 140,000 more full members since the beginning of last year, in an election-style campaign to shore up its base — with the hope that new members will continue to pay dues in the event they are no longer required.

That means reaching people like Monica Harris, who works in an office where people aren’t always sure where their compulsory fees are going, since the union hadn't felt the need to reach out.

“We just need to establish that presence,” Harris says. "I’m willing to take the responsibility, I just need some assistance.”


The Friedrichs case has advanced on the labor movement like an unexpected hurricane.

With the help of an anti-union group called the Center for Individual Rights, the case sped through lower courts after last summer's decision in Harris v. Quinn, which ruled against agency fees in Illinois. The majority opinion essentially invited a new test case on agency fees that would allow conservative justices to overturn earlier precedent that had sanctioned the fees in the first place, and Friedrichs is the perfect opportunity.

That could have a swift and and devastating impact. Right now, 91 percent of government workers covered by collective bargaining contracts nationwide are full members. But that number might fall quickly if people are free to not contribute, since a union is obligated to bargain on behalf of everyone in the workplaces they represent, whether or not they continue to pay dues.

The Supreme Court, however, is far from the only enemy unions face.

The last few years have been a steady drumbeat of attempts to cripple unions in states across the country. The biggest jolt came from Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker went to war against government employee groups, and largely won. Ever since a law passed stripping public sector unions of collective bargaining rights in 2013, AFSCME has hemorrhaged two thirds of its membership in the state.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders acknowledges that the union had been caught off guard — and that they needed a wake-up call. “I think we took things for granted,” says Saunders. “We stopped communicating with people, because we didn’t feel like we needed to. That was the wrong approach, and we don’t want to fall back into that trap."

Communicating is hard work. In Maryland, it falls to people like Andre Powell, who has worked delivering social services in Baltimore for 25 years. He’s a union shop steward, and takes time off work to visit other offices to sign people up — something he’s done with particular urgency in recent months, on account of the looming threats.

“It’s a continuous process, but it takes on a new meaning,” Powell says. “We’re holding our breath, biting our fingernails. We have to grow, if these court decisions don’t go our way.”

One Thursday in June, Powell put on a purple shirt and pink tie — more dressed up than he’d usually be for work — and walked through the doors of the Northwest Baltimore City Family Investment Center. As toddlers ran around underfoot, employees greeted him with hugs; Powell is a familiar figure, since this office doesn’t have a shop steward of its own.

“I think we took things for granted. We stopped communicating with people, because we didn’t feel like we needed to. That was the wrong approach, and we don’t want to fall back into that trap."
— AFSCME President Lee Saunders

Hoping to catch people on their breaks, Powell set up a table in the cafeteria with AFSCME green keychains, copies of the union’s contract booklet, and a yard sign that declared “I am not waste, fraud, and abuse!” His first target arrived, sat down at a table, and pulled out a tupperware containing her meal. Powell sidled up to her. “Can I pull up a chair and disturb your lunch?”

Powell then asked if she was an AFSCME member. “I guess I have to be, they take it out of my check, right?” the woman answered. That’s a common problem. The agency fee — or “fair share” fee, as unions like to call it — is calculated to represent only the costs of bargaining the contract, not political activity. In Maryland, that comes out to $14.29, which is automatically deducted every pay period, with AFSCME’s name on it.

“The difference between being fee payer and a full-fledged union member is only a dollar 30 cents,” Powell tells the woman, after talking her through the union’s recent accomplishments, like beating back Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s attempt to rescind a promised 2 percent pay increase. He offered flyers for upcoming protests and a union card, hopefully.

“I’ll take a look,” the woman told him. “Right now, a dollar from my check looks like an awful lot.”

Few people sign up for anything on the spot these days, which is why AFSCME has developed a system to allow people to do so online. Borrowing from political campaign technology, it’s also developed extensive databases on what members and non-members care about, gathered from home visits and other points of contact.

Undeterred, Powell starts chatting up the mostly women who come through, looking for the highlighted names on a list of people at that location who aren’t yet members. Gradually, he finds a few of them. They talk through issues — low pay, inconsistent management, outdated computer systems — and Powell makes a case for membership that has nothing to do with the Supreme Court.

“It’s important to convert people into actual members, because It shows the strength of the union,” Powell says. “We can go to the bargaining table with any governor, and say 'this is the membership we represent,' and say we’re speaking for the majority of state employees.”

That’s become more and more true lately. When Maryland started allowing public sector unions to collect fair-share fees in 2011, barely more than half of the approximately 20,000 people AFSCME represented were members. Now, 63 percent are members, with 1,000 people signing up just since this past March.

At the end of two hours, the cafeteria empties out. Powell bags up his recruiting materials, and counts up the handful of cards that got signed.

"OK, so we got some new members,” he says, satisfied. "That’s how it happens, in bits and pieces."


Back at the union hall, AFSCME’s staff organizers are wrapping up their training, having gone over the union’s history, its role in the state budget fight, and how to reach out to non-members who might have been unimpressed by the union’s performance in the past. Participants had gone over lists of non-members in their workplaces, coding them by what kind of individual outreach would be required to win them over.

Towards the end, organizer Ben Forstenzer wants to drive one point home.

"Staff involvement in your workplace cannot be the difference. You have to be the difference,” he tells the group. “We will help you until we we’re exhausted, but if you’re not eventually going to be the difference, we cannot do it."

This training was focused on Maryland’s budget, with activists bent on pushing back against the governor’s plan to impose across the board funding cuts. But it could pay dividends down the road, even if the Friedrichs case doesn’t end up taking away agency fees — a more engaged membership is better equipped to win battles with management either way.

“Some union leaders believe that institutional difficulty will occur at first, but union resolve may stiffen,” says Lee Adler, who teaches public sector labor law at Cornell University. “They believe that their unions will be required to ‘re-organize’ their already organized members and seek to deepen their political and work-based commitment while explaining why they need to collect dues differently.” In fact, he points out, some union locals in right-to-work states have already achieved high membership rates through diligent organizing.

Nationwide, AFSCME is already starting to see some return on its investment — right-to-work bids have been beaten back in places like Missouri and West Virginia, and an attempt to take away automatic payroll deductions for union dues was defeated in Texas.

And it depends on making people like Monica Harris, the skeptical parole officer, feel like part of the effort. At the end of the training, when participants were asked to tell the group about something they had learned, it seems AFSCME had won a small victory.

“I learned that we are the union,” she announced. "I never thought of it like that before.”