[I’m writing this on my personal blog rather than on our union chapter blog; this is not intended to represent the position of APSCUF.]
Like most advocates of unions and unionism, I’m appalled at the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v AFSCME, issued June 27, 2018. It’s a naked attack on union power. By the logic [sic] of the wealthy, greedy people who propagated this nonsense through the court system, taking agency fees/fair share payments (click if you need a primer) out of the mix means that public employee unions have less money with which to protect workers, lobby for better funding for public institutions, and campaign for labor-friendly candidates. Those are all true–we will have less money to do those things–if nothing else changes about how our unions conceive of and activate our membership.
I’m hardly the only person making a version of the argument I’m about to make. In the wake of Janus, unions need to be a lot better about making sure our members don’t want to leave, and making sure potential members become actual members. Maybe my favorite of the bunch is Dave Kamper’s “How to Defeat the Post-Janus Union Attacks,” which published within minutes of the decision. I especially appreciate one of Kamper’s claims that felt really counter-intuitive at first, which I want to take even further than he did.
One of the implications of this decision is that it recreates the free-rider problem; that is, bargaining-unit workers who choose not to join and pay dues are still entitled to its services, including grievance and workplace protections. Those services are expensive in terms of time and money, and demanding in terms of intellectual and even emotional energy (just ask anyone who’s done grievance work). I served as chair of my union local’s grievance committee for years, and I get the urge to tell free-riders to bugger off.
Here’s the guts of Kamper’s response to that position:
[T]he “free-rider” rhetoric makes unions’ duty to represent all workers sound like something to be resented — a drag on the organization — rather than an ideal to aspire to. The more unions pursue this line of messaging, the more they’ll weaken the concept of “solidarity” — the idea that in the fight against the boss, workers rise or fall together — within the rank and file. In the long run, this will weaken members’ commitment to the union more than anything else.
Solidarity sometimes means we have to take care of people we might think–as individuals–don’t deserve our energy. Sometimes we have to give more than we get. Some relations of equality are more equal than others.
Kamper ends by making the point that the only way to beat back attacks on solidarity is to stand in solidarity:
The whole thrust of the Right’s political message for the past several decades has been to atomize workers — to get us to embrace only our own personal needs and to regard collective action as a surrender of power to those less special or talented. Unions are the living answer to that argument. So long as we are here and we are strong, we refute the lie that we’re better off on our own. That is the core of unionism, and only by embracing that core can we survive the coming opt-out attack.
With Kamper, I’m issuing a call to union leaders and members here. Our commitment to solidarity demands that sometimes we act in solidarity with people who aren’t committed to us. Why? One version of the response is his: we all rise or fall together. I agree. Another version (not that much different but worth saying anyway): solidarity literally cannot happen in an environment where we’re the ones denying it. And another: if we tell people who opt out that they’re never welcome, we lose any chance at getting them to opt in.
Look–I get it. It feels obvious that people who don’t do their part, who opt out of contributing to solidarity, ought to have to contribute something to the structures our solidarity provides for them. But I think that’s a reflex response, and as organizer/comrade Alyssa Picard of AFT put it yesterday:
[R]eflexes are no substitute for values, and we are in a time when it pays to slow down and discern them from one another.