Soft spoken and bespectacled, Diana Corral, a 36-year old Orange County social worker, hardly fits the stereotype of union boss.
“I love my job because I love helping people,” she said of her work as an eligibility specialist who guides the poor, the disabled and the homeless in applying for food stamps, Medi-Cal heath insurance and cash assistance.
But as president of Local 2076 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with 1,450 members, Corral is one of hundreds of public-sector union leaders on the warpath across California to counter the effect of Wednesdays U.S. Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME.
The decision, overturning four decades of legal precedent, outlawed so-called “fair-share” or “agency” fees levied by government unions. The fees, paid by workers who decline to join a union, have offset the costs of collective bargaining. As unions are forced to represent so-called free riders, analysts predict widespread defections of dues-paying members, crippling the labor movement and its allies in the Democratic Party.
But in California, with 1.5 million union-covered public employees and a labor-friendly legislature, that assumption might be wrong.
The Janus case “riled people up,” Corral said. “It sparked something in us. We see the inequity; the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. More of our members want to organize to fight for the working class; to protect what little we still have.”
At her Anaheim local, that has meant new “member action teams” fanning across 14 work sites, asking colleagues to sign “commitment cards.” The cards, which she said have been signed by more than 90 percent of her members, legally re-enroll them for a year or until their bargaining contract expires.
Over two years, 150 of the locals 200 non-union fair-share payers — those who paid $12.42 in biweekly fees, rather than full dues of $19.34 — signed up to become full-paying members.
Supreme Court cases[hhmc]
The cards are part of a statewide, below-the-radar organizing push launched after a 2014 Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn, that allowed homecare workers to drop fair-share fees. Conservative groups and business interests then backed a broader suit filed by Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs to abolish the fees at all public sector unions.
When the court deadlocked over the Friedrichs case in 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the arguments were revived by Mark Janus, an Illinois state worker who opposed his unions political stances, contending the fees violated his free-speech rights.
“These court cases were a wakeup call across the entire labor movement that internal organizing had to be an absolute priority,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation, an umbrella group for 1,200 local unions.
The result? “A silver lining,” Smith said. “You hate to have a gun pointed at your head. But unions stepped up in a big way across the state to make sure we not only survive, but we build strength.”
Nationally, just 6.5 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized, but unions represent 34.4 percent of public-sector employees. In California, 55 percent of all union members are civil servants — police officers, sheriffs deputies, teachers, firefighters, garbage collectors, nurses, bus drivers, water quality specialists, road repair laborers, prison guards and workers in scores of other occupations.
Federal law requires unions to negotiate wages and benefits on behalf of all employees in their workplaces, regardless of whether they join the union. Fair-share fees meant non-members chipped in for the cost of representation, but not for political activities.
Without the fees, Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley labor law professor, predicts that “unions will suffer a substantial loss in funds…Economists know its economically rational for people to free ride on payments made by others.”
In May, a study by the University of Illinois and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute estimated that outlawing public sector fair-share fees could eventually result in the loss of 189,000 union members in California, more than in any other state.
Dream or nightmare?[hhmc]
But out of the public eye, labor groups have been mounting intensive night and weekend trainings with role-playing on how to approach fellow members. Officials tout membership benefits such as free online college classes offered by AFSCME. They cite a UC Berkeley study showing workers covered by a union contract earn on average 13 percent more than non-union peers.
Another talking point: labors clout in pushing California minimum wage, sick pay, parental leave and health insurance laws that benefit non-union workers too, along with its political organizing around public school and affordable housing bond measures.
And they describe Janus in terms of its “billionaire corporate funders,” such as the Koch brothers of the Kansas oil conglomerate and the Walmart heirs Walton Family Foundation.
“Big employers and right-wing activists have plotted for decades,” said Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose 300 affiliates represent 800,000 workers. “Their dream is the demise of the labor movement.
“But Janus could end up being a nightmare for them,” Hicks added.
“We see a groundswell of energy and support for a collective voice on the job… Polls show 60 percent of Americans favor unions, and among 18 to 35 year olds, its 70 percent. This decision isnt an apocalyptic moment for the labor movement.”
New California laws facilitate labor organizing. Corral, at the Anaheim local, cited a measure requiring agencies to notify unions of new hires. “Before, it was word of mouth,” she said. “Folks would have to say, hey, there are some new people in the building.”
Another law ensures union access to orientation sessions for new employees. A third measure restricts the disclosure of workers personal email addresses—information that union opponents have sought.
“Californias union-dominated legislature is resisting changes at the federal level,” wrote Steven Greenhut, Western region director for the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank, in a recent article. Janus, he predicted, “will help level the battlefield, but conservatives still have a long fight ahead.”
Advocates of so-called “right-to-work” laws that restrict mandatory union fees say labors new vigor is already hampering their efforts.
“The commitment cards make it much more difficult to opt out of unions,” said Samuel Han, California director for the Freedom Foundation, a Washington state group which expanded to the Golden State last year. “People are signing a death warrant on their First Amendment rights.”
Unions allow a narrow annual window—often just 15 days—during which members can resign, he notes. “If they force you to stay a year, then maybe they can convince you to stay longer. They can send people to harass you.”
The foundation emailed 76,000 teachers in Los Angeles and San Diego last month, urging them to withdraw from their unions. Only 160 filled out forms on the foundations OptOutToday.com website, Han acknowledged, attributing the low number to spam-blocking and summer vacations.
The foundation plans to ratchet up its teacher blitz with door-to-door canvassers, social media, radio and television spots, and more emails. “We have a team of attorneys to send threatening letters” to unions on behalf of those who want to opt-out, Han added.
The teacher campaign builds on the foundations two-year Orange County-based effort to persuade California homecare providers to drop union membership. Minimum wage In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) workers, numbering nearly 500,000, are paid through Medi-Cal to care for low-income disabled and elderly patients at their home—a cheaper alternative to nursing facilities.
The foundations public records request to obtain caregivers addresses and telephone numbers was turned down in Orange County last year. But in January, Han, a former Republican legislative aide, persuaded the all-GOP Board of Supervisors to adopt a script at IHSS orientations telling new providers they can avoid paying union dues and skip the unions presentation.
A union surge[hhmc]
Doug Moore, executive director of the United Domestic Workers, which represents more than a third of Californias homecare workers, including in Orange and Riverside, said his union lost 30,000 fair-share payers statewide after the 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision.
But the United Domestic Workers union turbo-charged recruitment and services with focus groups, text messaging and door-to-door canvassers armed with ipads. The union also instituted “tele-town hall meetings” that members can follow on their smart phones and created an app to help caregivers calculate their hours and pay.
The union reminded workers it had successfully fought in court and in the legislature against proposals by Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown to cut the home care program and limit their wages and hours.
The UDW effort paid off. Over three years, Moore said, the number of full dues-paying members rose to74,000 from about 37,000.
“The other side is organized, sophisticated, and ready to pounce with more lawsuits and millions of dollars from the Koch brothers and ALEC,” he added, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a 50-state corporate-funded group that promotes conservative initiatives.
“But we built trust with our members,” Moore said. “They know were fighting for them.”
At Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union, about ten percent of 95,000 covered workers across Southern California were fair-share payers, according to President Bob Schoonover.
The local administers 140 contracts for workers in hospitals, foster care, mental health, courts, law enforcement, libraries, street services, beach maintenance, sanitation, water treatment, parks services and watershed management.
“Weve had four years to prepare for Janus,” Schoonover said, adding that some 500 activists have taken the unions eight-session “Rise and Resist” training courses. So far, 60,000 members have signed commitment cards.
“We talked a lot about labor history over the last 30 years,” he added. “Attacks on labor have driven down good paying jobs. Moms used to have a choice as to whether to go to work or not. Now a lot of people have to work two jobs to make ends meet.”
Californias public universities have also seen an organizing surge. Dues-paying members in Teamsters Local 2010, which represents clerical employees and skilled-trades workers at 27 University of California and Cal State campuses, grew to 83 percent from 29 percent in four years, according to spokesman Christian Castro.
Fair-share payers dropped to 17 percent, he added, and so far 9,000 of 14,000 members have signed the unions “Member Power Form,” as it calls its commitment cards.
Even in Republican-leaning Orange County, Jennifer Beuthin, general manager of the 18,000-member Orange County Employees Association, said intense pre-Janus organizing means “we are not going to miss a beat.” Her union expanded its shop steward force to 320 from 200.
“Orange County has been a testing ground for anti-worker ideas,” Beuthin added. “Cities have tried to outsource public works so corporations can grab public money. Our members want to protect their pay, their healthcare, their retirement security.”
If unions have amped up, however, they are under no illusion that Janus will be the last battle in the collective bargaining war. This week, Akash Chougule, policy director for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, a 34-state political powerhouse, called Janus “the beginning, rather than the end, of legal and legislative questions about worker-union relations.”
New lawsuits are on the way, he suggested, challenging unions right to represent all employees at a work site, attacking limited opt-out windows and forcing unions to regularly hold re-certification votes.
Last week, at the cramped Anaheim office of Local 2076, Corral, the social worker and union president, read out names and employee numbers from a stack of blue and green 5 x 7 cards as a co-worker cross-checked the information in a database on her laptop.
It was tedious work. “Weve been at this for three years,” Corral said. “Volunteering can be hard on your personal life. You have to have the passion for it.”
For her, it is about “the unfairness thats out there,” she said. “Life is a lot harder for us than for our parents. They could afford a house in Orange County, but many of our members cant. And they have student loans.”
Corral, who has a bachelors degree in social work from Mount Saint Marys University, earns $56,000 a year, below the California average of $58,000.
“Folks have a misperception that public employees are living large and getting bloated pensions,” she added.
“Thats totally wrong. We are just ordinary people getting modest wages and benefits that lift us into the middle class. We are the real face of every-day public service.”
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