“Right-to-work,” the Supreme Court, and ATU 757

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court kicked off its new term, and they’ve agreed to hear a case that will likely make the entire country “right-to-work” for public-sector union members, like most of the sisters and brothers of ATU 757. The situation is serious, but all is NOT lost: we’re going to work with the Oregon AFL-CIO, and unions across the Pacific NW, to stay strong in this new environment.

What is “right-to-work,” what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court, and what’s your local going to do about it? Check out our short guide:

What is a “right-to-work” law?

Under current US law, union-represented workers don’t necessarily have to become active union members, or pay the portion of their dues that does to a union’s political activities. We call those members “fee objectors.” But because those fee objectors benefit from the union contract and union representation in discipline cases, they still pay a portion of their dues, called “fair share fees.” According to the NW Labor Press, those fees average about 85% of normal union dues.

“Right-to-work” is an old propaganda term bosses started using in the 1940s, that would undo the fee objector system and devastate public-sector unions across the US. In short, after right-to-work becomes the law of the land, it will be illegal for unions to collect those fair share fees from non-members, even though those fee objectors profit from the wages, benefits, job security, and union representation that we provide.

Right-to-work means a free ride at the expense of active dues-paying union members. And this year, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Janus v. AFSCME, and based on the partisan make-up of the Court, it’s almost certain that they’ll make the US a right-to-work country for public-sector members; the case doesn’t apply to private-sector unions, but we know that it’s only a matter of time before that’s on the table in the courts or Congress.

How’s ATU 757 doing now?

For most unions, about 5-15% of your membership list will be fee objectors who don’t pay full dues. ATU 757 is in a slightly different position: we have a lower number of fair share members, which means that the immediate impact of Janus won’t be as intensely felt as it might be for some of our partners in the labor movement. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to rest on our laurels, especially because anti-union organizations like the Freedom Foundation are going to use right-to-work as a pretext to get members to leave the union, and to prevent new hires from signing up. While we’re starting stronger, that also means we have more to lose.

So what’s our union going to do?

28 states in the US are already “right-to-work,” and so we have some powerful models for how to keep fighting in this new environment. We’ve been working with our friends at the Oregon AFL-CIO, ATU International, and unions across Oregon and Washington to develop our response to Janus and right-to-work. Here are a few of the strategies ATU 757 is working on to make sure we remain strong after the Janus case is decided. There’s more in the works, so stay tuned!

  • First, we’re going to double down on our internal organizing work. Our conversations with the AFL-CIO and other unions make one thing clear: there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversations with new hires and non-members to explain what the union does for them. We’ll be fighting to make sure every new hire at every property we represent receives information about the union, and a conversation with their shop steward or liaison officer, as well as ATU 757 staff.
  • Public pressure is another useful tactic. Some unions have taken to publishing a list of freeloaders so that union members in good standing can see exactly who’s not paying their fair share, and encourage their colleagues to join the union in full. In the future, ATU 757’s monthly Bulletin wrap on the NW Labor Press might feature a regular column highlighting non-members who reap profits from the union without paying in. We don’t want to shame folks – we just want them to join the union as full members!
  • Speaking of member-to-member communication, one of the most important things unions in right-to-work states have done is to make sure that there is a steward in every shop who can talk about what the union does for members. We’re lucky to have a powerful network of shop stewards, liaison officers, and executive board officers on the front lines, and we’ll build on that by identifying, training, and supporting new leaders at every level.

We don’t want to mince words: right-to-work is going to be one of the biggest challenges our union has ever faced, and we don’t fully know how the impact will be felt in our region. But we know that ATU 757 is up to the task. We’re going to use this as an opportunity to strengthen our internal organizing and our local leadership to become a more democratic union, while we work to convert any fee objectors into union members in good standing. Do you want to learn more about right-to-work, or become a part of our internal organizing work to keep this union strong? Please reach out to your local officers and the union hall, and let’s get to work!