Union officials are gloating that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME has not affected the labor movement. But are they telling the whole story? A review of union narratives after Michigan adopted a right-to-work law suggests that unions are prone to downplay the effects of policies that create choices for union members.
In June the Supreme Court reversed a 40-year-old precedent and held that Mark Janus, an Illinois state worker, could not lose his job if he refused to financially support the union of his workplace. This ruling recognized a right to non-association in more than 20 states, which affects 5 million public employees. Prior to the June ruling, union officials had issued ominous predictions.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the case was an attempt to “gut … a strong and united labor movement[.]” Naomi Walker, assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), saw far-reaching consequences: “The progressive infrastructure in this country, from think tanks to advocacy organizations — which depends on the resources and engagement of workers and their unions — will crumble.” At the Janus hearing, the union’s attorney warned justices of “an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country.”
It’s not the first time unions have taken a narrative U-turn. In 2012, Michigan shocked the nation by adopting a right-to-work law, meaning a union no longer could get a worker fired for refusing to give it financial support.
Before the law was enacted, Michigan unions and some lawmakers predicted the worst, should Michigan go right-to-work.
Democratic state Rep. Doug Geiss said, “There will be blood, there will be repercussions,” while he debated the legislation. The United Automobile Workers called the bill “the worst anti-worker legislation Michigan has ever seen.” U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats scramble to reach deal on taxes On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters MORE said it was a “debilitating assault” on unions. Michigan Education Association (MEA) President Steve Cook condemned the legislation, which he called “a serious attempt to cripple [unions].”
Yet after the law was enacted, union leaders downplayed its effects. Al Garrett, president of Michigan AFSCME Council 25, predicted about 100 workers would leave the union. After one year of right-to-work, the MEA’s Cook bragged that 99 percent of his members had stayed. A year later, Cook said the union lost fewer than 5,000 members.
It turned out the MEA, in particular, used what Cook called “any legal means” to protect the flow of dues. School employees who left the union reportedly faced a wide range of harassment: attacks on their reputations, union visits to their classrooms, being listed in union publications, and new union contracts that required dues for another 10 years.
In a similar fashion, organized labor’s proclamations that the Janus case has not affected membership are premature. These announcements establish a positive narrative in the news media and could be aimed at discouraging union members from leaving. As an MEA official said when asked about the union’s obligation to explain the resignation process: “Membership organizations don’t work that way. We don’t market how to quit.”
Current rosy membership announcements belie true union projections. The first numbers that have come to light from the National Education Association (NEA) since Janus show that some 104,000 people no longer are paying union fees, according to Mike Antonucci, an education reporter. Antonucci earlier reported the NEA cut its budget by $50 million in anticipation of an adverse decision.
AFSCME conducted 600,000 one-on-one interviews with members before the Janus ruling. The union concluded that 35 percent of its members would remain in the union “no matter what,” 15 percent would stop paying dues, and the remaining 50 percent were “on the fence.”
It will take more than a few months to evaluate the true impact of the Janus ruling. As that develops, expect unions to attempt to change laws and contracts to make it harder for public employees to exercise their rights.
Michael Reitz is executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute located in Midland, Michigan.