McClatchy's America

‘Everything is at stake:’ California unions brace for a Supreme Court loss

California labor leaders sound almost apocalyptic when they describe a looming Supreme Court case that many of them concede likely will cost them members and money.

“Everything is at stake,” says Yvonne Walker, president of Service Employees International Local 1000, state government’s largest union.

“It’s a blatant political attack,” says Eric Heins, the leader of the massive California Teachers Association.

“That’s a way that the corporations are trying to take our legs out from under us,” says Kim Cowart, a state registered nurse and SEIU union leader.

They’re alarmed by Janus vs. AFSCME, the Illinois lawsuit that challenges the rights of unions in 22 states to collect so-called “fair share” fees from employees who do not want to join bargaining groups but may benefit from representation. That practice has been legal and common since 1977, when the Supreme Court favored union arguments for fair-share fees in a lawsuit against the Detroit Board of Education.

Since then, business-backed groups and politicians have chipped away at fair-share fees across the country. They contend that the fees subsidize a union’s political activities, undermining the First Amendment rights of some workers.

Now, unions anticipate a 5-4 Supreme Court decision banning the mandatory dues with President Donald Trump’s nominee on the court, Neil Gorsuch, tilting the balance against their side just a year after the court deadlocked on a similar case against the California Teachers Association.

If Gorsuch breaks the tie as expected, public employee unions in California will not be able to count on collecting some form of dues from everyone they represent. Unions that operate in both “right to work” and “fair share” states say the shift could drive down membership by 15 percent to 30 percent.

“It’s not right that an employee who would pay nothing to the union for representation would still receive all the benefits from the collective bargaining process,” said Steve Crouch, director of public employees for International Union of Operating Engineers. His union represents maintenance workers in California and in right-to-work Nevada.

In that scenario, public employee unions would have less money to negotiate contracts, fund political campaigns and defend public employee pensions from the occasional voter initiative that aims to undo them. A Beverly Hills city councilman earlier this month, for instance, wrote an article for a California conservative blog that suggested weakened unions would help reformers address the state’s underfunded public employee pension plans.

“Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, public sector unions could lose some of their power, which might – just might – open the door to real and lasting solutions to California’s pension crisis,” John Mirisch wrote.

To hold on to power, public employee unions will have to shift to a model already used by California’s private sector unions that centers on motivating people to opt in to union membership even though they don’t have to. The model works for groups like the California Medical Association and the 400,000-member State Building and Construction Trades Council.

“I think the public employees in the end will figure it out that they need a voice up here because there’s going to be a lot of voices against them,” said Robbie Hunter, president of the trades union.

Here’s a look at how the state’s public employees unions have been preparing for a loss at the high court.

Leaning on lawmakers

California unions worked the halls of the Legislature this year to give them a hand in solidifying their membership just in case the Supreme Court strikes down their fair-share fees.

One new law guarantees unions the right to meet with new public employees almost as soon as they start their jobs. Another bans public agencies from releasing private phone numbers and email addresses of workers, information that could be used by anti-union groups to persuade people to quit their bargaining groups.

And one more law allowed 500 California Judicial Council employees to gain new bargaining rights.

Union leaders say the law that gives them access to new employee orientation is particularly significant.

The union that represents California Highway Patrol officers, for instance, has an opportunity to meet new cops as they graduate from their academy. That gives officers a shared identity that helps translate to high union membership. The California Association of Highway Patrolmen does not charge fair-share fees, and its membership rate is north of 97 percent.

Carrie Lane, the union’s chief executive, said the employee orientation law gives other labor groups similar opportunities to meet new workers early.

“A lot of the unions don’t have that. They don’t even know they have another (potential) member. It’s really important to be able to clearly demonstrate to their members the value of membership,” she said.

Talking about the case

The highest profile right-to-work campaign in recent memory took place in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker advanced policies that led to steep declines in union membership since 2010.

SEIU Local 1000 is pointing to Wisconsin on a section of the union’s website dedicated to the Janus case. The page contrasts low wage increases for Wisconsin civil servants since the state adopted right-to-work policies with SEIU’s latest contract, which netted a base wage increase of 11.5 percent over 42 months and higher raises for about a fifth of the workers represented by the union.

Walker, the SEIU president, said the difference in how public workers have fared in the two states shows the value of collective bargaining.

“None of our members are billionaires, none of our members are large corporations with millions and billions of dollars,” she said. “My members are just average working people who want to have a collective voice in the things that are going to impact their lives and their communities.”

Signing up new members

Union leaders are careful to say that they’re always trying to recruit more members, but some of them acknowledged those efforts are taking on greater intensity this year. The idea is to get workers in the union fold now and have a better chance of keeping them there if the court decision makes membership optional.

“It does give all organizations a renewed emphasis to go out and recruit members,” said Bruce Blanning, president of Blanning and Baker, a consulting firm that represents state scientists and state engineers.

Finding common ground

It’s hard to miss the Democratic leanings of most unions. SEIU 1000’s motto, “stronger together,” echoes Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Purple-shirted SEIU members have shown up in force at immigration-related events this year, and fliers that read “#Resist” are common features at union offices around Sacramento.

But huge public employee unions like SEIU 1000 and CTA are full of people with different viewpoints and political leanings. That’s why some unions are focusing on local workplace issues to connect with workers and make a case for continued membership.

Leaders at the Sacramento City Teachers Association visited dozens of schools over the past month and asked their members whether to authorize a strike. Those face-to-face interactions centered on shared goals, not state politics.

“We all want more art and music in the classroom. We’re advocating for that,” said David Fisher, the union’s president. “Almost everybody wants lower class sizes. Almost everybody realizes we need credentialed teachers in the classroom who have resources to support them. These are things we’re advocating for that improve learning conditions for students and working condition for teachers.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at