Conservatives Pushed a Strategy to Weaken Home Healthcare Unions. The Trump Administration Bit.

Originally published in The Intercept on May 31, 2019.
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EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Trump administration announced a new rule barring home health care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded wages. The new Department of Health and Human Services rule, which will impact more than 800,000 workers and was immediately met with a legal challenge, followed years of planning by anti-union activists to promote such measures in states across the country, and, more recently, on the federal level.

In anticipation of a crushing blow to public-sector unions by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, conservative groups ramped up their efforts to bring the federal government’s attention to the issue of Medicaid-funded union dues, according to an audio recording obtained by The Intercept and Documented.

On an invitation-only call with donors last June, leaders with the State Policy Network — a corporate-backed umbrella group of right-wing think tanks across the country — raised the issue of directly deducting union dues from Medicaid-funded paychecks, what they call “dues-skimming.” Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor policy adviser to the State Policy Network told donors that its plan was to end this practice by getting “an administrative rule passed at Health and Human Services” and passing federal legislation with the assistance of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The legislation has not yet come — despite a promise from McMorris Rodgers announced at the start of 2018 that she would introduce a bill to this effect. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, announced less than two months after the call that it would consider amending its Obama-era rule, which it ultimately did this May. On the call, Vernuccio touted that the State Policy Network “is the only group that’s driving this effort at a national level.” A spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers did not respond to requests for comment.

Others on the call were Rebecca Painter, the vice president of development for SPN; Tracie Sharp, the president and CEO; Todd Davidson, the senior director of strategic development for the network; and Jennifer Butler, an SPN senior policy adviser. None of the five call leaders returned The Intercept’s requests for comment. Instead, SPN spokesperson Carrie Conko reached out and said she would address any inquiries. She wrote in an email that her coalition plans to keep fighting in Washington “on behalf of those who would rather not see their hard earned money siphoned from their paychecks and into big union’s political and lobbying activities.”

The 45-minute call came about two weeks before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which struck down public-sector unions’ ability to charge fees to nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining. SPN leaders voiced optimism that the case would bring them positive results.

“I want you to know that later this month, or any day now, the chances are good that we may actually have this unprecedented opportunity with the Janus Supreme Court case decision,” Sharp told her donors. “If it comes down on our side, of course, it makes every state a ‘right-to-work’ state. And so we have the opportunity to change the way the left funds everything that you and I disagree with.” At a different point on the call, she said, “Once this ruling comes down — and we do expect it to come down in our favor — everything will change. The door to pass a dream list of free-market reforms is going to swing open for us.” Vernuccio agreed. “Once the government union barrier is removed, everything else that matters to everyone on this call so much is that much closer within reach,” he said.

With a Janus victory in sight, an emboldened State Policy Network looked ahead to next steps, particularly taking the dues-skim fight from the states to Washington, D.C. SPN could “devolve power back to the states, communities, and most importantly, back to individuals,” Butler explained to the donors. “By harnessing all our expertise and all the resources at the federal level, we can stop this nationwide,” Vernuccio added. “So nothing really illustrates the power of SPN and the network better than what[‘s] gonna soon be a victory on the dues-skim.”

THE STATE POLICY Network’s first win on the dues-skim came in early 2013, just as Michigan became a “right-to-work” state. The SPN organization in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, convinced state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to eliminate the ability of child care providers and home health care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks.

The financial result has been devastating for unions: In the past seven years, SEIU Healthcare Michigan has seen an 84 percent drop membership and a 74 percent drop in revenue. Its political spending has also seen a major decline, from $3.5 million on lobbying and politics in 2012, to just $290,000 in 2016.

SEIU Healthcare Michigan spokesperson Adam Bingman told The Intercept that the rollback of protections for home health care workers has exacerbated the care crisis in his state. He’d recently gotten “two different calls from independent providers” who said they’re struggling to find qualified home health care workers. “The lack of union membership and the assault on home care workers, and those who rely on those services, has really hurt the ability to attract dedicated qualified home care professionals,” he said. According to Bingman, many home care workers have left to go work in nursing homes or find alternative employment.

While Michigan provided conservative activists a proof point of what’s possible with regards to weakening home health care unions, Republicans soon realized that passing similar measures in other states would not be as easy. “In Michigan, the Mackinac Center hit it out of the park; they stopped it,” said Vernuccio on the donor call. “But in a lot of other states, the political winds just simply didn’t align.”

Facing state-level opposition, the same conservative activists known for railing against federal intervention decided the time was necessary for federal intervention. Vernuccio explained how SPN “saw an opportunity to … harness everything that we learned” in Michigan and other states around stopping the so-called dues-skim and to bring that knowledge to D.C. “This means that states like California, Washington, Illinois that would need a huge political sea change to stop the skim at the state level will now have it stopped in D.C.,” he told the donors. “It also means that we’re focusing the firepower of the donations of people on the call and across the country — that instead of fighting an uphill battle in these states, we can win more quickly and more easily in Washington, D.C.”

Butler then shared that she had been taking caregivers to Congress to tell lawmakers how they’ve been affected by the dues-skim and unions. She cited a nearly half-hourlong meeting they had with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a few months prior. Federal disclosures show that Butler, on behalf of SPN, has lobbied the Senate, the House of Representatives, and Health and Human Services with the stated goal of ending the Medicaid dues-skim.

In April 2018, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma requesting that she look into the dues-skimming situation. His letter said that unions in 11 states were able to skim an estimated $200,000 in Medicaid payments each year, a statistic he attributed to a 2017 Mackinac Center policy brief. By August, Verma had announced that her agency was reconsidering the rule, and both Johnson and McMorris Rodgers submitted comments in favor of changing it.

The Mackinac Center cheered the Trump administration’s new rule, finally announced on May 2. “Ever since the Mackinac Center learned a decade ago of unions skimming funds from those caring for society’s most vulnerable — and in many cases, their own ailing family members — we began to actively seek to end this abhorrent practice,” said Joseph Lehman, the center’s president, in a statement. “This illegitimate action, negotiated between government and big unions, cost Michigan caregivers tens of millions of dollars. We were proud to litigate and bring an end to this practice for Michigan residents providing care to the disabled. Now, we celebrate with caregivers across the country who are finally afforded the same relief.”

A POWERPOINT PRESENTATION prepared by Heart+Mind Strategies for the State Policy Network in October 2017, and obtained by The Intercept and Documented, details carefully tested message research to help Republicans craft their talking points on this issue for lawmakers and the public. The research was conducted through a 25-minute online national survey between October 5 and 13, 2017, with over-samples in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

A “key messaging takeaway,” the consultants advised, was to be sure to not attack unions directly, as “they are seen positively by Americans” and most respondents “describe unions as fighting for higher wages and better benefits.” Only a minority of respondents, the consultants found, associate unions with “negative descriptors like corrupt, harmful, and dangerous.”

While the consultants acknowledged that “government labor unions” was the most effective way to negatively describe unions, even then they admitted that support for “government labor unions” was more positive than not. Still, the consultants said, “there are large groups of neutral Americans who can be moved on the issue.”

When it came to the dues-skimming issue, the consultants reported encouraging results for the Republican activists, saying that more than half of Americans oppose direct dues payments for government-funded home care workers and child care providers, and just half had existing knowledge of the policies. They found that most Americans have negative associations with the phrase “dues-skimming” — even before learning what it means.

To successfully fight direct union payments from child care workers and home care workers, the consultants advised activists to use messaging that included phrases like “as a condition of employment” or “forced to pay.” They also recommended focusing on language about taking money dedicated to people with disabilities and to avoid language around “growing the union’s treasure chest.” Coincidentally or not, the Department of Health and Human Services issued its new rule on similar lines, denying that it would interfere with voluntary union dues and insisting that it “in no way prevents” health care workers from paying dues to a union.

The Heart+Mind Strategies consultants also polled support for going through Health and Human Services to end the practice of union workers directly deducting their dues, and respondents supported the idea of the department sending a letter to states demanding that they end the practice by a 12-to-1 margin. This resembles the course of action the federal government ultimately pursued.

Conko, the SPN spokesperson, told The Intercept that the research from the PowerPoint presentation shows “that the general public agrees with us” about “right-to-work” laws and the Obama-era rule that allowed health home care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks. Conko said the research was shared with state think tanks across the country and on SPN’s website, along with stories of workers “who wanted policymakers and others to know how the union’s practices were unfair and not always transparent.”

The messaging tips were consistent with SPN’s practices that The Intercept has previously reported on. The network has advised its member groups to avoid lodging direct attacks on unions because unions remain highly popular. Instead, SPN urged its state affiliates to stress that their efforts are about protecting workers’ “First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association.”

Bingman of SEIU Healthcare Michigan said the dramatic attacks on workers’ rights have “ultimately underlined that elections have consequences.” He pointed to the election of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November and said that his union, “along with organized labor, are really looking forward to changing things both here in Michigan and on the federal level.”

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GOP-Led Efforts to Crush Unions Have a New Target: Home Health Care Workers

Originally published in The Intercept on May 16, 2019.
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Five states are pushing back against the latest Republican-led assault to weaken unions across the country, which targets in-home caregivers who work with Medicaid beneficiaries.

On Monday, attorneys general representing California, Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging a new rule, announced earlier this month, that impedes home care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded paychecks. The rule, which goes into effect in July, will impact more than half a million workers in California alone, and several hundred thousand more in 10 other states.

The case was brought against the Department of Health and Human Services and its secretary, Alex Azar, and filed in San Francisco federal court. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants have illegally reinterpreted federal law “in service of anti-union objectives.” The new rule, they say, disrupts long-settled arrangements that allow seniors and individuals with disabilities — who work with state governments to set wages, benefits, and terms of service for their providers — to direct their own health care. More than 700,000 individuals across the five plaintiff states currently use consumer-directed Medicaid programs.

The lawsuit against the Trump administration rule, which was finalized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, comes the same week as two major developments for home care workers in the United States. In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the nation’s first publicly funded long-term care benefit, a hard-fought victory by advocates including SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 home care workers in Washington and Montana. National advocates say they will use Washington’s policy as a model to push for in other states.

Also this week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to review a case led by a group of Minnesota home care workers who argued that a state law that made Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, their bargaining agent violated their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs pointed to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the 2018 case struck down public sector unions charging fees to non-dues paying workers. The same conservative legal groups that supported Janus also helped the Minnesota home care providers, though this time their efforts failed.

While the high court’s ruling marks a setback to conservatives seeking to leverage free speech laws against union power, there are still dozensof other Janus-inspired lawsuits winding their way through federal courts, with two more lawsuits filedin the last month. This week’s lawsuit against HHS is the opposite of that — a proactive effort to get the courts to defend the rights of unionized workers.

The plaintiffs argue that HHS and Azar have violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the law governing how federal agencies can propose and implement regulation. Their complaint says the new rule “abruptly and without any sound rationale or conversations with affected states” overturns an Obama-era rule that confirmed the practice of taking direct deductions from home care workers’ paychecks. The Trump administration has been repeatedly accused of violating the APA, issuing new rules and mandates, and repealing old ones, often outside the bounds of established protocol.

“With this rule, the Trump administration is not only harming Medicaid skilled home care workers who have joined unions, but the millions of seniors and people with disabilities who depend on these indispensable workers,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement.

SEIU, which represents most home care workers, released a statement calling the rule “racist” — noting that 90 percent of home care workers are women, more than half are women of color, and a quarter are immigrants. “The administration’s attempt to silence home care workers reflects a long history in the United States of double-standard policies that deny working people of color like home care workers and domestic workers basic legal protections and rights, including protections for minimum wage and overtime pay, and the right to organize and form strong unions,” the union said. Without a union, SEIU added, independent home care workers earn a median wage of just $10.49 an hour, with no paid sick time or health care benefits.

The federal Bureau for Labor Statistics projects that demand for home care workers will increase by 41 percent between 2016 and 2026, as the baby-boom generation continues to get older. Union membership gives home care workers an incentive to stay on the job, according to a 2017 survey by the National Employment Law Project of more than 3,000 home care workers, of which one-third were union members. The researchers found that unionized respondents were more likely to expect to be a home care worker a year from now, less likely to be looking for other jobs outside of home care, more likely to receive benefits, and had higher wages on average.

The Trump administration announced last August that it was considering scrapping the Obama-era rule that affirmed home care workers could deduct union dues from their Medicaid-funded paychecks. This practice has been criticized by conservatives who argue that in-home caregivers shouldn’t be able to “skim” government funds away to union coffers and that doing so “damages the integrity” of the Medicaid program.

Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which files lawsuits in favor of banning unionized workplaces from requiring dues for bargaining representation, praised the Trump administration’s new rule in a statement, calling it a “long-overdue rule [that] closes the illegal loophole created by the Obama Administration that has provided union officials with legal cover to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds into union political and lobbying activities.”

In 2014, thanks to a lawsuit backed by Mix’s group, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that Illinois home care workers could not be required to pay union agency fees. Mix said the Trump administration’s new rule represents “another important step forward in protecting the rights of home care worker from rapacious union officials” and pointed to the 2014 Supreme Court decision, describing it as a situation where “[National Right to Work] Foundation attorneys freed homecare workers” from making payments.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma has denied their new rule is about making it harder for workers to be in unions; she said it’s simply to ensure that any diversion of Medicaid payments is truly lawful.

Last April, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs — which is tasked with investigating “the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness” of all government agencies — wrote to Verma requesting that she look into this alleged “dues skimming” and cited rising Medicaid costs. The letter, authored by committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said allowing unions to take dues from home health care providers saps $200 million annually from Medicaid recipient care. Johnson asked CMS to review the practice “and determine whether changes to law or regulation are necessary to ensure Medicaid funds are provided to the program’s intended beneficiaries.”

“The effect of this final rule is the elimination of one method of getting payment from A to B,” the final rule states. “It in no way prevents healthcare workers from purchasing health insurance, enrolling in trainings, or paying dues to a union or other association.”

Critics say the Trump administration’s rationale makes no sense, pointing out that eliminating the ability to directly deduct union dues does nothing to curb Medicaid spending.

Caitlin Connolly, the director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project, a union-backed legal advocacy group, told The Intercept the argument put forward by the Trump administration and its Republican allies is misleading because the money spent on dues is taken from workers’ wages, who get to decide how to spend the money that they earn.

“When I look at my paycheck, I get my wages and I decide, thanks to the convenience of my right as an employee, to allocate some of that money to a retirement account, some to a health savings account, and some to my union dues,” she said. ‘It’s my money, and I get to choose how to spend it. Just because the source of these workers’ wages is Medicaid dollars doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to choose how to spend it.”

And since workers are still able to take their wages and spend it on union dues, just without the convenience of direct paycheck deduction, Connolly said this shows the point is to create more hurdles for workers to jump through to exercise their union rights.

“I think there are locals working with members to see how they can handle dues payments in a way that would reduce the burden if direct deposit were restricted, and I think workers are sharing with them ideas on what would be helpful, but there’s nothing easier than saying, ‘I don’t have to think about this, I agree to this, and please take care of it,’” Connolly said.

Washington Becomes First State To Approve Publicly-Funded Long-Term Care

Originally published in The Intercept on April 26, 2019.
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Washington state lawmakers on Tuesday passed the nation’s first long-term care benefit program, which would provide residents with up to $36,500 to pay for costs like caregiving, wheelchair ramps, meal deliveries, and nursing home fees. Jay Inslee, Democratic governor and 2020 presidential candidate, has said he intends to sign the Long-Term Care Trust Act into law.

The measure is hailed as a monumental achievement not only for Washingtonians, but also for advocates working nationally to tackle the rising and formidable costs of care work and old age, something that’s become only more pressing as the baby boomer generation heads into retirement. The Long-Term Care Trust Act comes on the heels of a novel cash benefit program Hawaii launched in 2017 that distributes $70 a day for up to 365 days to family caregivers. A growing number of states have passed paid sick leave policies over the last five years, and more presidential candidates are elevating the issue of child care and how to afford it. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s new Medicare for All bill even includes coverage of long-term care, something not currently provided by the federal insurance program.

The ultimate goal, advocates say, is some kind of universal family care, a comprehensive social infrastructure to support all the varied costs of care work from birth to death. “That’s our North Star,” said Sarita Gupta, co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national campaign that launched in 2011. “We have really been trying to help people go from seeing care work as an individual burden to a shared responsibility that we’re all going to face.”

With the Long-Term Care Trust Act, taxpayers expect to save $3.9 billion in state Medicaid costs by 2052. The bill had bipartisan support early on, including three Republican co-sponsors, but it was approved largely along party lines in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Advocates for the bill said that Republicans voted against it for political reasons amid heated budget negotiations, and not because they disagreed with it in substance. Republican Reps. Drew MacEwen and Paul Harris, both original co-sponsors, did not return request for comment.

In some ways, it makes sense that the groundbreaking long-term care legislation would originate in Washington, which has been leading the country in progressive policies. In 2013, the small town of SeaTac, which surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour. This marked the first real policy win for the nascent Fight for $15 movement. Seattle would becomethe first major U.S. city to approve a $15 minimum wage a year later. In 2016, voters approved a state ballot measure to raise Washington’s minimum wage and establish a paid sick leave program. The same year, SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 long-term care workers in Washington and Montana, negotiated a home care worker retirement benefit, the first of its kind in the nation.

“We first started talking about long-term care about 10 years ago, because the funding system is really broken and because we’re focused on lifting caregivers out of poverty,” said Sterling Harders, president of SEIU 775, which helped push for the bill. Harders said the union’s work began with commissioning studies, followed by many years of slow coalition-building. “I think it’s easy to forget on days like this when I’m jumping up and down celebrating our victory that we’ve essentially been working on this for the past decade, and intensely for the past three years,” she said. “This is really the end of a long road.”

The bill works like this: Beginning in 2022, workers will pay a modest monthly payroll tax, 58 cents for every $100 they earn in income. The per capita average income in Washington is about $37,000, meaning that the average monthly contribution would be about $18. Those who pay into the program for three years, or for a total of 10 years including five consecutive years, will be able to access the benefit, which, at present, maxes out at $36,500. In 30 years, as it’s indexed for inflation, the benefit will be more than $88,000.

The $36,500 could pay for respite care, in-home caregiving, time in a nursing home or assisted living facility, home modifications like constructing a wheelchair ramp, and other elderly care expenses.

The legislation was first considered by lawmakers in 2018, but at the last minute, the state’s chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, withdrew its support, citing disputes over details like eligibility for qualifying as a caregiver. Members of civil rights, disability, senior, and health care groups who organized under the banner of Washingtonians for a Responsible Future reconvened this year to hash out compromises.

“I think what changed this year is that coalition members just met more and worked more closely to hear each other’s concerns,” said Janet Kim, a spokesperson for Caring Across Generations. “The resulting policy is more comprehensive and flexible than what was considered in 2018.”

Legislators worked on the bill with a few key facts in mind: Caregiving is an increasingly stressful burden for not only seniors, but also for their family members. Nationally, relatives spend an average of 20 percent of their own money on caregiving costs, according to the AARP, and often have to leave their jobs, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and benefits. A 2018 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that approximately two-thirds of adults support a long-term care program like Medicare, including 76 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans.

In addition, legislators grappled with the mounting strain on the state’s budget. Seventy percent of Americans end up needing long-term care after turning 65, and more than 90 percent of people do not have private long-term care insurance. While Medicare does not cover the cost of most long-term care services, many individuals don’t realize this until it’s too late. Medicaid, however, does cover long-term care services, but to access it, individuals have to deplete their assets until they have less than $2,000 in savings, a system that literally incentivizes going into poverty. As Washington’s population gets older, actuaries have projected that the state’s Medicaid-funded long-term care program would almost double to $4.01 billion annually by 2030.

Ruth Egger, A 65-year-old retiree in Seattle and a part-time caregiver for her parents, has advocated for the bill since it was first introduced. Though she and her parents, who are in their 90s, are unlikely to directly benefit from the Long-Term Care Trust Act, she said her personal experience as a caregiver and her professional experience as a social worker motivated her to fight for the legislation. She personally testified in support of the bill last year and this year before the Washington State Legislature.

Egger’s father fell and broke his hip a few years ago, which brought on debilitating depression. “My father temporarily lost the ability to dress himself, and if he had had access to this benefit, he would have been able to pay for an aide to come help him,” she said. “It was exhausting watching him trying to figure out how to get his clothes on, and at that point, it would have been really beneficial if he had access to this extra money.”

Egger also stresses that so-called orphan elders — single seniors, or seniors who never had children or have children who live across the country or abroad — are also in particular need for long-term care assistance. “They get old and they have no support to help them, and they may need someone to come in twice a week and help them bathe or set up their medication,” she explained.

Washington’s benefit could also prove beneficial to the long-term care insurance industry. “Those companies didn’t expect people to live so long and to pay out so much, so fewer companies are writing those [long-term care] plans,” said Egger. Some experts think that the Long-Term Care Trust Act will make the economics of supplemental long-term care insurance plans more feasible, similar to the supplemental private Medicare insurance that 13 million Americans currently pay for. A recent article in Forbes reported that insurance industry officials expressed interest “in developing products” to supplement what Washington state is proposing.

Ultimately, Harders sees the Long-Term Care Trust Act as not just providing a needed economic benefit, but also as one more step toward elevating the field of caregiving, which is largely dominated by unpaid or low-wage women and people of color.

“Caregivers are really members of a larger health care team; they spend hours and hours with the person they’re taking care of, they know when that person has changes in their health condition, when someone is losing weight, when someone gets dizzy, but it’s really a struggle for caregivers to be taken seriously as health care professionals,” Harders said. “That’s part of why this bill is so important for our union because we feel this is a step down the path of making sure caregivers are given the respect they deserve.”

Labor Unions Are Skeptical of the Green New Deal, And They Want Activists To Hear Them Out

Originally published in The Intercept on Feb. 28, 2019.
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Deciding whether to sign onto the Green New Deal resolution is not an easy call for many members of Congress. They have to contend with the usual opponents: coal, utilities, oil companies, and other big-pocketed interests who like today’s economic order just fine. But even on the left, coalition-building can be complicated.

After signing onto the Green New Deal as an original sponsor, one House Democrat felt that acutely when he traveled back to his district and met with two top local labor leaders. The congressperson, who asked not to be named, said he faced harsh criticism from building trade representatives who worried the plan would put their members out of work. He pushed back, arguing that their members will actually fare better with a green infrastructure plan that can drive up wages for blue collar work, pointing to jobs like retrofitting buildings and constructing renewable energy infrastructure.

Recent polling has found strong bipartisan support for a Green New Deal, but unions, a key constituency, have been less than enthused by — and in some cases, downright hostile to — the ambitious proposal to tackle climate change.

Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, denounced the Green New Deal the day it was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. In a blistering statement, O’Sullivan said it was “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality” and “exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.”

For many observers, the construction union’s opposition was not too surprising. LIUNA had ardently supported the Dakota Access pipeline and said in 2016 that the labor organizations who opposed the project were “self-righteous” and “display[ing] a truly amazing level of hypocrisy and ignorance.” In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, LIUNA was one of several building trade unions to meet with the president, later praising Trump’s “remarkable courtesy” and affirmed that LIUNA “look[s] forward” to partnering with the White House on infrastructure.

Some climate activists have said that support for the Green New Deal should be a litmus test for progressives. Writing for The Intercept, Naomi Klein argued recently that the labor movement should “confront and isolate” LiUNA over its opposition. “That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders,” she wrote. “Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO” — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the country’s largest umbrella group for unions — “for planetary malpractice.”

As advocates of the Green New Deal work to gin up more support for the resolution, they face the challenge of parsing out bad-faith criticisms from legitimate critiques by those whose livelihoods would be impacted by a transition to green jobs. The way they straddle that line and respond to those concerns could make all the difference in getting the critical mass of support needed for the Green New Deal to pass.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s nonbinding resolution includes explicit language backing union jobs that pay prevailing wages and a commitment for “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The Green New Deal also calls for “strengthening and protecting” the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.

Despite those promises, only one big union, 32BJ SEIU, has come out swinging in support of the Green New Deal. The majority of labor organizations have so far stayed quiet or voiced skepticism or criticism. The opposition, particularly for those in the building industry, is rooted in concerns about jobs and wages, as well as the approaches favored in the resolution for decreasing carbon emissions. There is also a political thread, with Trump-voting Republican coal miners, for example, hesitant to embrace a policy that has been sponsored only by members of the Democratic caucus.

Evan Weber, political director at Sunrise Movement, the youth advocacy organization credited with putting the Green New Deal on the political map, suggested that his group is not too worried about labor’s early response. “Since the resolution launched, a few [unions] have put out negative and less-than-enthusiastic statements about the Green New Deal,” he said, “but most are remaining silent and choosing to view this as a potential opportunity.”

Two weeks ago, seven unions representing workers in the building industry sent a letter to the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and its ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., saying they “have grave concerns about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the ‘Green New Deal.’” The unions have also used the letter — which outlines their climate legislative priorities — in meetings with House members and senators since January, according to Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America.

Despite advocating their position in Congress, the signatories have not yet made public statements on the Green New Deal. Mark Brueggenjohann, spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which signed the letter, told The Intercept that his union is not commenting now on the resolution, but “will be better prepared to do so” when actual legislation is available.

One climate strategy that many unions have said is important is investing in carbon capture technology and storage — a conceivable, if yet to be realized, way to prevent most of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel plants from entering the atmosphere. This method has already generated a bit of controversy in the rollout of the Green New Deal. 

In November, the Sunrise Movement called for a Green New Deal Select Committeethat included “funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases.” This language appeared to endorse research and development in carbon capture technology, something many climate experts say is necessary to keep the planet from overheating. But in January, as Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic reported, the drafters of the final version of that resolution quietly removed any reference to “capturing” greenhouse gases. Meyer noted that the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which last fall warned that a failure to make major changes to reduce global warming in the next 12 years will be catastrophic for the planet, “has not produced any projection that shows us hitting that [necessary decarbonization] target without massively deploying carbon-capture technology.”

Carbon capture technology is somewhat polarizing. Critics say it’s risky to bank on pricey technology that does not really exist yet, and they say that the fossil fuel industry uses the prospect of carbon capture as an excuse to avoid reining in their environmentally harmful businesses.

Supporters, however, argue that investing in carbon capture is scientifically necessary for reducing emissions globally and vital for maintaining economic stability. “Our union does not question the science about climate change, and we’ve been working for some time on ways to mitigate it,” said Smith, the spokesperson for the mine workers union. “The answer, to us, is not quit using coal, but to spend the kind of money that needs to be spent on carbon-capture technology, on a commercial scale in this country and across the world. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t do that, you’ll never solve the global crisis.”

The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t explicitly rule out carbon capture technology, but in a section that deals with removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the authors endorse “proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage,” like protecting land and planting new trees. Other vaguely written sections of the resolution, however, could open the door for carbon-capture technology. The resolution endorses “creating solutions to remove” emissions, and endorses the international exchange of technology, products, and services to address climate change.

The resolution is nonbinding, so the inclusion or exclusion of a provision does not dictate how future legislation will be written, but it does suggest some hesitancy to embrace carbon capture technology and storage.

The Sunrise Movement does not see “a heavy role for carbon capture and storage,” said Weber, the group’s political director, though he said it could be worth investing in some research and development for so-called heavy industry like steelmaking and shipbuilding. He noted that carbon capture technology is “pretty expensive compared to just reducing emissions by moving toward alternative forms of energy.” Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s offices did not return requests for comment.

As an alternative, Weber said photosynthesis should be seen as an optimal way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We think there’s a lot of upward potential here in the U.S. to do ecosystem restoration and preservation,” he said. “A number of studies have shown that that can really help us get toward our climate goals and we’re most interested in investing in those proven solutions.”

Laborers are also skeptical of what the Green New Deal’s promise for a “just transition” would mean in practice. “We think it’s very important to find out what a ‘just transition’ actually means and who gets to define it,” said Smith of the mine workers union. “And will people be paid what they’re earning now, with the same level of benefits? None of that has been clarified.”

Members of the United Mine Workers of America earn an average of $30 an hour, along with employer contributions to a 401(k), paid sick leave, paid vacation, and ample health benefits, according to Smith. “I think, frankly, if you’re able to say to these folks, here’s a $30-an-hour job with all the rest of the stuff you’re used to, and you’ll pretty much work the same hours, you’ll have folks say, ‘OK, I’ll consider this,’” he said. “But that’s not what anyone is saying. And it seems to us there’s a very naive view about what this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from.”

Saikat Chakrabati, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, responded to early criticisms of the Green New Deal by saying that they envision future legislation that would provide economic security to miners who would find a switch to a new career challenging.

When asked if his members see an urgency to address climate change, Smith said they haven’t done formal polling, but that “anecdotally, our membership is very split on that issue.” He noted that plenty of miners voted for Trump and tend to agree with his perspective on climate change.

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, or NABTU, told Reuters that his members were skeptical of promises of “green jobs” and noted that “renewable energy firms have been less generous” than the oil and gas sector when it comes to paying their workers. Renewable jobs, notably, are generally safer than fossil fuel jobs and can be done anywhere in the country, unlike jobs that are dependent on the location of a mine or an oil rig.

Like the mine workers, when it comes to NABTU and other critics of the Green New Deal, members’ political orientations are relevant.

In 2016, NABTU, along with LIUNA and a handful of other unions, sent a letter to the AFL-CIO, calling on the federation to cut ties with Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal critic of the Keystone oil pipeline. (Since Trump’s election, Steyer has also frequently called for the president’s impeachment.) Despite their agreement over Keystone, the groups’ partisan leanings are a bit divergent. In the 2018 cycle, NABTU gave 41 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democratic candidates and 59 percent to Republicans. More than 75 percent of LIUNA’s contributions, by contrast, went to Democrats in the last election.

NABTU and LIUNA did not return multiple requests for comment.

Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said some of the concerns unions have raised about needing more specificity are “completely valid,” though he accused LIUNA of lying about what the resolution contains and misrepresenting climate science. “It’s always kind of disappointing to see potential allies resort to tactics that we see the right wing and our common enemies using,” he said.

With respect to labor issues, Weber said, the Green New Deal is “leaps and bounds ahead of previous climate proposals.” From his group’s perspective, if energy workers cannot find new jobs that pay them equal to what they’re currently earning, then “the government should step in and make up that difference,” he said.

“I think the job guarantee is a really critical element of the Green New Deal,” he said. “It doesn’t say if you’re a coal miner, you’re now going to go work on installing solar panels, it asks what are the jobs that make sense for your community and have this transition be something that’s locally determined.”

The union that has offered the most enthusiasm for the Green New Deal has been 32BJ, which represents 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers along the east coast. On February 6, the Joint Executive Board of 32BJ passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal and “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to a 100 percent clean and renewable energy economy.”

In an interview with The Intercept, 32BJ’s New York City-based president, Héctor Figueroa, proudly noted that his union was the first to come out in support of the Green New Deal. “We can build unity in labor if we can recognize the urgency of the climate crisis” and effectively link the fight for climate justice to economic justice, he said.

Figueroa’s rhetoric is similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise activists. He emphasized the need to take action “in a big, bold way” that addresses climate “concurrent to the problems of income inequality and declining labor standards.” He noted his personal connection — his family comes from Puerto Rico and has been dealing with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — and he said two-thirds of their membership was born outside of the United States. “They know the impact of climate change back in their home countries,” he said. “They understand this is a global problem.”

32BJ’s February resolution on the Green New Deal “marked a new phase” in the union’s engagement on climate change, as for the past two decades, they’ve focused primarily on advocating for green jobs and energy efficiency standards, Figueroa said. “Now we’re taking another step, which is to very clearly and categorically say we need to build a future without fossil fuel,” he explained.

Their next task will be to pressure their national union, SEIU, to support the Green New Deal. “We are very passionate about it, and we believe it’s the right place for labor,” he said.

Other locals may also play a role in pressing their parent unions for support. Out in California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, of which an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local is a member, issued a resolution in support of the Green New Deal.

Aside from that, most unions have stayed silent — even those that have contributed to the discourse around climate change in the past. The AFL-CIO, for example, passed a resolution in October 2017 on “Climate Change, Energy, and Union Jobs.” The resolution affirmed the labor federation’s commitment to passing “energy and environmental policies with a focus on ensuring high labor standards, the creation of union jobs and environmental sustainability,” and also affirmed its support for enacting “comprehensive energy and climate legislation that creates good jobs and addresses the threat of climate change.” In 2009, the AFL-CIO worked to shape the House’s cap-and-trade bill. The American Clean Energy and Security Act — the name of which is conspicuously missing the term “climate change” — died in the Senate without a vote.

While the AFL-CIO has yet to issue a statement on the Green New Deal, in September, the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, gave a speech on fighting climate change that is telling of the group’s perspective. He said that “strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now … plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future … they are more than unjust. … They fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of 14 unions and environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers — backed the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but has not commented on the Green New Deal. (Spokesperson Abby Harvey declined The Intercept’s request for comment.) Critics have noted that BlueGreen Alliance tends to avoid weighing in on more controversial issues, like the Keystone XL pipeline. (LIUNA, which supported the pipeline, quit the alliance in 2012 over related disagreements.)

David Foster, the former executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, wrote an op-ed in The Hill earlier this month, urging the public to study the lessons from a decade ago, the last time leaders called for a global Green New Deal. “Unless the transition to a clean energy economy is based on unifying politics, this next iteration will also prove another adventure in pyrrhic rhetoric,” Foster warned. A decade ago, unemployment was high and the price of oil was also skyrocketing. While neither are true today, he noted, inequality remains terrible and working conditions throughout the entire economy feel even more precarious.

The Sunrise Movement plans to launch a campaign in March to build more support for the Green New Deal, with events planned in states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. “We’ve been working to get a lot of support from the grassroots and the grasstops,” Weber said, “and we’re going to keep doing that going forward.”

After Janus, The Country’s Largest Public-Sector Union Takes Stock of Its Movement

Originally published in The Intercept on July 5, 2018.
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The annual meeting of the National Education Association, the country’s largest public-sector union, held in Minnesota this week was much more high stakes than in years past. Typically, the convention is a chance for educators to vote on bread-and-butter issues like budget priorities and advocacy target areas. But the 8,000 or so students, retired teachers, and NEA delegates who descended on the Minneapolis Convention Center had more existential questions on their minds. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt a crippling blow to public-sector unions, they debated strategies to expand their membership, keep union members apprised of their rights, and recover from the impending financial loss that is sure to happen in a post-Janus world.

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled last week that despite laws requiring public-sector unions to represent all workers in a workplace, fees charged to non-members to support the costs of collective bargaining violate the First Amendment. For more than four decades, the Court has held it constitutional for unions to collect money from non-members to support the costs of negotiating contracts on their behalf. Janus overturned that precedent, meaning that employees can now enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay for it. Labor unions are bracing for substantial revenue loss.

Now, the choice before teachers is paying either hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues, or nothing at all. The NEA, which represents a little over 3 million members, is forecasting a loss of 370,000 members over the next two years. Approximately 88,000 educators have been non-members paying NEA agency fees, and the union anticipates at least several hundred thousand current members will also rescind their union cards.

“Janus was nothing more than a pretext for the Koch brothers and all their funded-friends to push for union members to drop out,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “With Janus, they don’t care about the [agency] fee payers, they care about reducing our resources and our actual members.” She pointed to the multi-million dollar effort recently launched by a Koch-backed group to persuade dues-paying members to opt-out.

In light of these realities, the NEA approved a two-year budget at its convention that scales back union expenditures by $50 million. Union leadership maintains that this scaleback will not impact the organization’s political activities. “We’re looking at getting economies of scale as best we can,” explained Jim Testerman, the senior director at the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “How many more meetings can we do digitally, can we cut back on food, travel, are there different ways to approach the work. We also didn’t replace 40 staff who retired in January.”

While some states where NEA wields the most influence, like California, New York, and New Jersey, have required non-members to pay agency fees, the recent wave of teacher strikes that exploded across the nation in states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma occurred in right-to-work states — which purport to protect workers from being required to join unions, but make collective bargaining more challenging and don’t require agency fees. Conservatives point to the walkouts as proof that agency fees aren’t really necessary. But workers in right-to-work states say they understand their efforts are aided by the national unions, which will certainly take a financial hit from Janus.

Back in the 1980s, when Eskelsen García was a 6th grade teacher, she served as bargaining chair for her union in Utah, a non-collective bargaining state. “There’s still a lot you can do without anyone’s permission,” she said. Just as superintendents and school board members largely supported the teachers who went on strike in red states this year, Eskelsen García said many administrators have shown willingness to bargain with unions even when not compelled to by state statute.

Indeed, at the NEA convention, despite the looming financial threats, the thousands of attendees were palpably emboldened by the teacher walkouts, collective actions that gave them a renewed and clearer sense of their own power. Though the protests were not union-initiated — beginning spontaneously with the grassroots — Testerman, of the NEA’s Center for Organizing, said his union is working to marry “the organic and the organized” as actions erupt. “It’s something we got better with over time, and Arizona was a good example,” he told The Intercept. “You don’t want the union to take it over, but having some organized entity who can get you permits and porta-potties and things like that can help you get even more done.” According to Testerman, Arizona’s NEA affiliate has seen an 8 percent increase in its membership since last year. “I don’t think the walkouts are over,” he added, noting that the future of the movement will depend on what happens in upcoming legislative sessions.

Delegates Reject Proposal to Open Union Membership to Supporters

One of the most contentious items considered at the NEA convention was a proposed constitutional amendment to create a new category of union membership, open to “any person who demonstrates support in advancing the cause of public education” and “advocates for the mission, vision and core values of the Association.”

The idea was formed last year in the wake of Betsy DeVos’s nomination to lead the Department of Education, Eskelsen García explained, when parents and community members flooded the NEA with questions on how they could speak out in opposition to DeVos and better support public education. Then, in the midst of the teacher strikes, the NEA president said, the outpouring support from non-educators proved crucial in building a broad political coalition for the walkouts. Under the proposal, so-called “community ally” members would pay minimal union dues but would be ineligible to vote on union matters or hold governance positions. The biggest opportunity this membership category would create, supporters explained, would be to make it possible for community allies to contribute to the NEA’s political action committee; only NEA members can legally contribute to the PAC, and given the expected decline in membership, this change would have given the PAC an additional stream of funds. The proposal also would have enabled the union to contact supportive members of the public directly. “We’re organizers in our bones,” Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “Why not organize them?”

The proposal triggered heated debate on Tuesday afternoon. Some members voiced concerns about opening up the union to outside political influence. “Selling stockholder shares in our union is a dangerous one,” warned a delegate from Michigan. “When you purchase stock, you expect a return on your investment.” Marshall Thompson, a delegate from Minnesota, called the idea half-baked. “Does my union card mean something or not?” he asked. “Bill Gates should not be able to buy one.”

NEA leadership defended the proposal, explaining that four other major unions, including AFCSME, have a similar membership category for the public, and all but 14 of the NEA’s state affiliates do too. For example, the Pennsylvania NEA affiliate has a “Partners for Public Education” membership category. Plus, NEA leaders added, community allies would have the same $5,000 political contribution limits to the PAC as do regular members. Tripp Jeffers, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying a version of it already works well in his state. “We get by with a little help from our friends,” he quipped. Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, also defended the amendment, reminding the audience that the parents and community members who walked alongside educators during Arizona’s six-day teacher strike were instrumental in helping the union rebut the political narrative that their action was solely about teacher wages.

That was not enough to convince the 8,000 delegates, though. The measure was narrowly defeated on Wednesday, with just over 60 percent of delegates voting in favor. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Reauthorization and Affirmative Consent

Janus has also sparked a legal and political debate over whether dues-paying members need to proactively reauthorize their union membership. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, states that “neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” Conservatives have latched onto this “affirmative consent” idea to say that all those represented by a union, members and agency-fee payers alike, should have to affirmatively opt-in.

But labor groups have taken an alternative reading. At the NEA convention, the union’s general counsel Alice O’Brien told the crowd of delegates that Janus “does not mean that unions have to re-sign existing members. Janus is about fee payers,” she said. “Nothing in Janus supports an employer [who] insists a union must submit new proof that existing voluntary members want to remain members.”

Eskelsen García told The Intercept that the NEA has already received reports of school districts and school boards asking unions to submit new proof of membership. “But Janus doesn’t require that, and part of our mission right now is we have to make sure that our folks across the country understand that Janus was very specific in saying you can’t require a non-member to pay fees,” she said. “It doesn’t require re-signing up members, but we anticipated there would be a lot of misinformation from the Koch brothers and others. We’ll get this straightened out.”

The question over re-commitments first arose three years ago, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an anti-public sector union case considered to be the predecessor of Janus. (Friedrichs also challenged public-sector agency fees, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in 2016 resulted in a 4-4 decision that left the fees alive until Janus was brought before the court.) Despite the teacher union’s position that re-commitments are not legally necessary, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have been working since then on getting re-commitments from all their members. The AFT reports that out of 800,000 members in 18 states with agency fees, more than 500,000 members have pledged membership renewals since January.

“The re-commit campaigns have really been an organizing strategy to go out and talk to our members about what these Supreme Court cases mean, and the value of belonging and acting collectively,” Testerman told The Intercept. “If members don’t know who the union is and what the union stands for, they are not likely to remain a member and we’re not taking anything for granted.” He said the NEA has seen a growth in membership for the last three years in a row, at an average of 0.5 percent per year.

But the tactics some union affiliates have taken to secure member re-commitments have stirred controversy, and they may be legally vulnerable in the post-Janus world.

In Minnesota, for example, the 86,000-member statewide teachers union asked educators to fill out membership renewal forms for the 2017-18 school year, authorizing the union to deduct dues. The forms included a fine-print disclosure that said “this authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on September 24 and ends on September 30. (emphasis added)”

The general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said the Minnesota teachers union was “betting that most teachers will just sign the card without reading it, or understanding what it means—and just keep paying.”

Los Angeles teachers took a similar approach. In its recommitment campaign, the United Teachers of Los Angeles asked members to sign membership forms with fine print that said, “This agreement shall be automatically renewed from year to year unless I revoke it in writing during the window period, irrespective of my membership in UTLA.” The legal language was first reported by Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog site. “So a teacher who takes an administrative position, or leaves teaching altogether, and is then ineligible to be a UTLA member, will still be on the hook for dues payments until the next window comes around,” Antonucci surmised.

Both the Minnesota and Los Angeles re-commitment forms are constitutional under Janus’s “opt-in” requirement, said Charlotte Garden, a professor at Seattle University Law School. She added that she “also expect[s] the National Right to Work Foundation or other anti-union groups to challenge them in court, arguing they aren’t solicitous enough of objectors.” Garden said those types of challenges will “bring into conflict” two beliefs held by conservative members of the Supreme Court: that unions “must take various affirmative steps to facilitate the rights of objectors they represent” and that “employees should be held to the contracts they sign.”

Some conservative-backed litigation is already coming down the pipe.

Eight NEA state affiliates, including some in New York, Maryland, California, and Washington, are currently targets of class action lawsuits seeking to recover agency fees previously paid to the teacher unions before Janus. “The lawsuit we filed is a refund of the fees that were illegally retracted,” said John Bursch, the lawyer who filed the class action on behalf of California teachers. Alice O’Brien, the NEA’s general counsel, reminded delegates at the convention that whomever replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement just hours after siding with the majority in Janus, could help decide whether unions must pay back agency fees or not.

Another case, filed in February 2017, takes square aim at union opt-out rules. In Yohn v. California Teachers AssociationRyan Yohn and seven other California educators objected not only to paying agency fees but also to bureaucratic hurdles employees must go through if they want to opt-out of union membership. The teachers argue workers should have to affirmatively opt-in to a union, not opt-out. “We’re not free-riders, we’re forced riders,”one plaintiff told Education Week in February. The case is being brought by the Center for Individual Rights, the same libertarian law firm that brought the Friedrichs suit.

Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told The Intercept that she has no doubt that conservative groups will aim to push the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus for cases like Yohn. “I’m afraid that Janus has opened up additional fronts in the war these groups are waging on public-sector unions and the labor movement more generally,” she said. “We will see litigation for years.”

Union-Friendly Legislation in the Wake of Janus

In anticipation of a Supreme Court decision striking down agency fees, unions have been lobbying state legislators for the last few years to support new bills that could help labor strengthen its position. Specifically, labor organizations have pushed for new measures that would more easily allow union representatives to make the case for membership to new public-sector employees and to limit the services unions have to provide to non-members.

Last year in California, the legislature passed two such bills: one that allows public-sector unions to give presentations to new employees during their job orientations, and another that restricts what government employers can say to their staff about the pros and cons of joining a union. Two bills are pending now that would give labor groups an opportunity to weigh in on a worker’s intent to cancel their union dues.

Maryland legislators passed a bill this spring requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative within 30 days of their hiring or by their first pay period. It became law in April without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a more expansive bill in May that gives unions a number of new protections, including the right to meet with new employees for at least a half hour within 30 days of being hired and a guarantee that public employers will provide the union with exclusive representation contact information for all new employees.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April signed what he called “the Janus bill,” which in addition to providing unions with contact information for all new public-sector workers, also makes clear that unions are not required to provide non-members with the full range of union services. For example, non-members facing disciplinary charges will now have to obtain their own attorneys, whereas the union covers legal representation for dues-paying members. Last week, immediately following the Janus decision, Cuomo issued an executive order to protect public employee contact information from those who may try to target them in union opt-out campaigns. It was mostly a symbolic gesture, since the state already has similar privacy protections on the books.

Aside from these bills, Sharon Block of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor and editor-in-chief of the On Labor blog, put forth another legislative proposal to help unions cope after Janus. “The simplest, and the most effective, move would be for states to change, quite subtly, the accounting system for union dues,” they wrote last week in Vox. While unionized public-sector workers currently earn about 17 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts on average, the now-unconstitutional agency fees have comprised about 2 percent of that wage premium. Under the system reviewed by the Supreme Court, employers paid this 2 percent to workers, and workers then had to pay that money back to the union as an agency fee. “But if public employers simply paid the 2 percent directly to the unions — giving the same 15 percent raise to employees but not channeling the extra 2 percent through employee paychecks,” Block and Sachs wrote, “then there would be no possible claim that employees were being compelled to do anything, and thus no constitutional problem.”

“We’re up against something pretty scary,” Lily Eskelsen García said this week in Minneapolis, speaking before thousands of delegates. “Janus is the latest attack on our union, but this ain’t our first rodeo… We don’t get scared, we get ready.”

Supreme Court’s Janus Decision Opens A “Pandora’s Box” For Public-Sector Unions

Originally published in The Intercept on June 28, 2018.
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Six years after Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito first signaled his interest in striking down agency fees on First Amendment grounds, he authored a crushing blow to public-sector unions in a giddy 5-4 opinion issued Wednesday.

Janus v. AFSCME resolved whether agency fees, also known as “fair-share fees,” can be collected from public-sector employees who do not wish to be members of a union. Under the law, a public-sector union has to represent all workers in a workplace, irrespective of whether they opt to be union members. Charging agency fees has historically enabled unions to avoid the free rider-problem — without them, employees could enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without paying the dues required to support union activities.

This week, the Supreme Court affirmed that no agency fee or any other form of payment can be deducted from an employee, “nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” The decision has immediate ramifications for the nearly 7 million state and local government workers represented by a union, of which 58 percent are women and 33 percent are African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Latino. There are 17.3 million public-sector workers across the nation.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that there’s a constitutional difference between a union’s political activities and its collective bargaining work. Compelling workers to fund the former would infringe on their freedom of speech, the court ruled in 1977 in a unanimous decision known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But, the justices determined in Abood, requiring agency fees to support collective bargaining work was constitutional. Now the court has taken a knife to that distinction.

Many expected this outcome two years ago, when the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Associationa case in which 10 public school teachers challenged the constitutionality of their mandatory agency fees on First Amendment grounds. While the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the teachers’ position, the Supreme Court seemed inclined to side with the challengers. But when Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February of 2016, the court ended up issuing a 4-4 decision, preserving the 9th Circuit’s ruling. On Wednesday, the conservative members of the court got a second bite at the apple.

Writing for the majority, Alito was extremely dismissive of AFSCME’s argument that labor organizations will be less effective if agency fees are struck down. To support its case, Alito pointed to the 28 states that currently have laws on the books prohibiting agency fees as proof that those fees are not essential to avoid conflict between competing labor advocacy groups — something both U.S. employers and American labor law discourage.  Even without agency fees, Alito argues, workers in 28 states enjoy exclusive representation.

“Whatever may have been the case 41 years ago when Abood was decided, it is thus now undeniable that ‘labor peace’ can readily be achieved through less restrictive means than the assessment of agency fees,” the majority opinion reads.

When it comes to the free-rider problem, the court was similarly dismissive, citing the arguments raised by unions as “insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections” and not representing a compelling state interest to begin with.

In the dissent, authored by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, Kagan writes that the majority “fails to reckon with how economically rational actors behave.” She argues that the majority ignores the basic fact that public-sector unions must represent all workers in a workplace, in contrast to private groups that can choose to represent only those who actively opt-in. Kagan also notes that the “Court today wreaks havoc on entrenched legislative and contractual arrangements,” rendering thousands of city, county, and state contracts across the country illegitimate. In other words, previously existing collective bargaining agreements in the public sector will now need to be re-negotiated, many of them all at once. New York City, for example, currently has agency fees in 144 contracts with 97 different public-sector unions. “[The majority dismantles these agreements] with no real clue of what will happen next — of how its action will alter public-sector labor relations,” the dissent states. “It does so even though the government services affected — policing, firefighting, teaching, transportation, sanitation (and more) — affect the quality of life of tens of millions of Americans.”

Conservatives immediately cheered the decision.

“The Supreme Court has freed millions of American workers from manipulation by union bosses that misrepresent their interests,” said Tim Huelskamp, president and CEO of the right-wing Heartland Institute, in a statement. “On the heels of this decision, every state should move quickly to certify that no American worker is ever compelled to give their hard-earned money to support self-serving union bosses.”

The plaintiffs in Janus and the cases that helped lay the legal foundation for it were supported by a web of conservative legal advocacy groups and right-wing foundations, including the Center for Individual Rights and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

In a statement released after the Janus decision, Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, declared that “despite this unprecedented and nefarious attack” the “American labor movement lives on, and we’re going to be there every day, fighting hard for all working people, our freedoms and for our country.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoed the dissenting judges, calling the Janus decision “a warping and weaponing of the First Amendment, absent any evidence or reason, to hurt working people.”

While unions are resolving publicly to fight back, they have also begun to prepare for the worst. The National Education Association, for example, which is the nation’s largest public-sector union, is forecasting a loss of 307,000 members over the next two years, and is planning to reduce its expenditures by $50 million during that period. There are currently 3 million members in the NEA.

Progressive economists say that Americans should expect to see economic inequality increase as public-sector unions adjust to a post-Janus world. According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, “[a]s union membership has fallen over the last few decades, the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased.” When union membership peaked at 33.4 percent in 1945, the share of income going to the top 10 percent was 32.6 percent. By 2011, when union membership was down to 11.1 percent, the share of income going to the top 10 percent reached 48 percent. The gap is even more stark when it comes to wealth: In 2017, the top 1 percent of American households owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, a higher share than at any point since 1962. The top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. EPI attributes these trends to the lack of bargaining power that non-union workers have to negotiate their wages, among other factors that have made wealth distribution more unequal.

The Janus decision, though long expected, begets a new period of uncertainty in American labor relations. As The Intercept previously reportedsome labor activists, like those in the International Union of Operating Engineers, argue that Janus may have some unintended consequences that empower unions. If, as per Janus, collective bargaining is speech, then it is subject to powerful First Amendment protections. The majority may have inadvertently opened up the floodgates for countless new union-led lawsuits against governments that try to restrict their speech, by, for example, limiting the scope of their contract negotiations to predefined topics. Dismantling Abood, they say, could open “a tremendous Pandora’s box.”

The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

Originally published in The Atlantic on April 11, 2018.
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When West Virginia teachers initiated a nine-day labor strike this past winter, they secured national attention and a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma and Kentucky educators followed suit, with Arizona teachers threatening to do the same. Amid all this organizing was another strike threat, not previously reported, last week in California: between teachers in online classrooms and the organization that employs them.

Students enrolled in virtual schools (sometimes called “cyber schools” or “virtual academies”) take their classes online. It’s a small phenomenon, representing less than 1 percent of students, but a fast-growing one. According to the National Education Policy Center, about 279,000 students enrolled in virtual schools in 2016, up from roughly 200,000 in 2012. Education experts have been concerned by the growth of virtual K-12 education, especially virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted virtual charter schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But, in practice, virtual schools, especially charters, have tended to deliver significantly lower academic results than brick-and-mortar ones. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” wrote the authors of a 2015 report from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

While some teachers gravitate to virtual charters because of the flexibility it offers, salaries can be low, and class sizes are, on average, much larger than in brick-and-mortar charter schools or traditional public schools. (Though virtual teachers don’t have to manage physical classrooms, large class sizes still equate to a heavier workload.) The overwhelming majority of virtual teachers are not unionized. But in 2014, educators at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), California’s largest network of online charter schools with more than 10,000 students and about 450 teachers, decided to create a union, California Virtual Educators United, under the umbrella of the California Teachers Association. After two years of legal battles, CAVA recognized the teachers’ union, and starting in September 2016, the parties began negotiating their first contract over salaries, class sizes, and other issues.

The negotiations represent an important test case of how educators might wield power in a future where online education becomes even more common. According to Brianna Carroll, a high-school social-science teacher in Livermore, California, and president of the teachers’ union, bargaining had been slow-going, especially in recent weeks, when negotiators hit an impasse over class size. Educators said the number of students under their supervision had spiraled out of control, with some teachers stuck overseeing virtual classrooms exceeding forty students, and demanded class sizes be capped. “Either you have teachers who are burning themselves out because they’re trying to meet the needs of everyone, or you aren’t meeting the needs of everyone,” Carroll told me. “It’s really one or the other.”

April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, declined to comment on many details of the negotiations. “CAVA is dedicated to working together with CVEU to reach a fair and equitable settlement so that we may continue to build upon CAVA’s unique and special achievements in support of the students and families across California,” she told me in an email.

While virtual schools across the country face some of the same struggles roiling traditional public schools, namely decreased state funding per pupil even after local economies have rebounded since the recession, virtual teachers also have to reckon with a newer threat: the involvement of for-profit companies that seek to deliver profits to their investors. CAVA, for instance, is a nonprofit network, but its operations are deeply intertwined with K12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia. K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charters. The company, according to Education Week, has built a powerful lobbying operation in more than 20 states.

While CAVA describes its schools as independent, Jessica Calefati of San Jose’s The Mercury News, who investigated the arrangement back in 2016, found tax records showing that K12 employees themselves had established more than a dozen online schools in California. CAVA contracts with K12 for all sorts of services: The company provides the schools’ curricula, oversees their budgets, trains teachers, offers technical assistance, and even handles media communications. Calefati wrote, “Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.” (A CAVA official called The Mercury News investigation a “gross mischaracterization” of the organization’s work.)

CAVA teachers say they organized a union in part to push back on K12’s corporate influence over their schools. “For so long it’s been focused on how to use this charter-school concept to turn a dollar, rather than how to use online tools to support more students,” said Carroll, the union president. “We’re really using the union to push CAVA to have different goals.”

The virtual charter network might benefit from some new goals. In 2016, then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged that K12 and CAVA had used false advertising and inflated their student-attendance numbers to collect extra state funds. Harris also alleged that K12 had trapped the network in debt by saddling cava with an unfair contract. CAVA and K12 agreed that year to settle with the state for $168.5 million. K12 emphasized it had admitted no wrongdoing, and said the attorney general “grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.” In an email to The Atlantic, the K12 spokesperson Michael Kraft disputed the AG’s characterization of the schools as indebted. Also in 2016, The Mercury News reported that fewer than half of  CAVA’s high-schoolers earned diplomas, and almost none were qualified to attend the state’s public universities. (K12 disputes this, noting the state does not always have reliable data for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility rates.) CAVA was also hit with a nearly $2 million fine in 2017 after California’s Department of Education found continued issues with attendance reporting and other practices. (CAVA disputed this, releasing a statement that CAVA schools “demonstrated they were consistently operating in full compliance with all state laws and regulations” and planned to appeal the financial penalty.)

Last fall, faced with a stalemate with CAVA over salaries, workday length, and class size, the teachers authorized a strike: More than 90 percent of the 450-member union voted to back their bargaining team if it called for walking off the job. Shortly after that, CAVA administrators tentatively agreed to some new concessions, according to copies of signed agreements provided by the union: a pay raise, a shorter work year, and fewer employment duties, among others.

Still, the fight around class size remained unresolved. CAVA teachers argued that class-size limits would improve academic quality. Carroll said the charter network maintained during negotiations that caps would hinder their needed flexibility. (CAVA declined to comment on its position on class sizes.) When they were still unable to reach an agreement, following a two-day fact-finding mediation last week, union leaders announced they were preparing for a first-of-its-kind strike. A virtual-charter strike would have meant that all online classes would be canceled, and teachers would meet in person to picket at locations such as the CAVA offices in Simi Valley. The strike was to be held in late April or early May.

But the day after the teachers’ strike announcement, April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, proposed a compromise resolution: Classrooms could be capped at about 30 students, according to a copy of the signed agreement provided by the union, and if a classroom were to exceed that threshold, the teacher would be compensated accordingly. The teachers agreed. “I think the strike played a huge role in helping us resolve this, because that’s what CAVA was constantly saying—‘well, we don’t want a strike,’” Carroll said. Warren declined to comment on the strike threat, but on Monday, she confirmed the parties had reached a tentative agreement and were “working on a timeline for full ratification.” A spokesman for K12 declined to comment.

Carroll says teachers at other virtual charter networks have been reaching out to her, intrigued by her and her colleagues’ union work. While the West Virginia and Oklahoma teacher strikes demonstrate how educators at traditional public schools can still assert formidable collective power, just 11 percent of charters in the United States are currently unionized, and among virtual charters, that number stands at 9 percent. There are several reasons for this: Most charter-school backers and funders take a relatively anti-union stance, asserting that unions will impede a school’s flexibility, and therefore its ability to deliver the best education possible for students. Unions have also been slow to organize charter-school teachers, long viewing them as scabs who threaten their livelihoods. Labor groups have softened their stance towards charter teachers in recent years, but tensions remain as unions continue to work politically to halt charter-school growth.

A successful contract negotiation for cava teachers, though, could help ignite similar efforts elsewhere. The anything-goes approach to virtual education has made it alluring to operators trying to cut costs or make a buck. But if their workers have any say in the matter, online charters’ freewheeling days may be numbered. That would be good not just for educators but for the students entrusted to them.

Radio show on Janus v. AFCSME and striking teachers

I was kindly invited onto a California radio show, Beneath the Surface, yesterday to talk about recent happenings in the world of labor — namely the Supreme Court case challenging public sector union agency fees and the recent West Virginia teacher strike  and potential teacher strike in Oklahoma.

I was joined by Shaun Richman, a regular source of inspiration for my labor stories.

Can listen here: http://archive.kpfk.org/index.php?shokey=bts_friday

The Right Is Trying to Bring Down Public Sector Unions. It May Bring Much More Down With It.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 25, 2018.
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In the middle of last week, Dixon O’Brien, a 60-year-old engineer, and his union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, quietly filed a federal lawsuit against Lincolnshire, a village in a northern suburb of Chicago. Together they raised issue with Lincolnshire officials using taxpayer dollars to fund a statewide lobbying group, the Illinois Municipal League, which advocates for things like limiting collective bargaining and reducing pension benefits. “O’Brien objects to the use of his tax money to fund private organizations that lobby and/or engage in other political activities that run directly against his economic interests and his political beliefs,” the complaint reads.

On Thursday, the head of the same union filed a federal lawsuit against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, challenging portions of state law that requires unions to provide representational services to non-dues paying members. “It is absurd that state law forces unions to provide equal representation and service to public sector workers who are not members and pay nothing toward associated costs,” said union President James Sweeney in a statement.

And then on Friday, the International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 139 and 420 filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, challenging a law he signed in 2011 that dramatically restricts public employee collective bargaining rights. The unions argue that the law’s restrictions impinge upon their protected free speech rights under the First Amendment.

These three consecutive lawsuits are a warning to the Supreme Court that if it buys into an extreme conservative argument being used to undermine labor unions, the justices are going to take a lot more than just agency fees down with them.

On Monday the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31 – a case experts have long predicted could strike a mortal blow to public sector unions. The plaintiff, an Illinois state worker named Mark Janus, has argued that he has a First Amendment right to avoid paying anything to a union that bargains on his behalf. With the current ideological leanings of the court, the plaintiff — and the conservative groups backing his lawsuit — face strong odds of victory.

But while most of the media has focused on the fact that the Janus case stands to decimate union coffers – and by extension, Democratic Party coffers – some labor activists and legal scholars have begun sounding the alarm on what they say would be the unintended consequences of the suit, effectively opening up the floodgates for countless lawsuits like the recent ones filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers. If Mark Janus doesn’t have to pay his agency fees because collective bargaining is speech he disagrees with, then collective bargaining is speech. And it can’t be restricted. Indeed, when some of the lazier advocates of Janus lay out the case, they accidentally argue on behalf of  unions’ right to free speech. “Because government is both employer and policymaker, collect­ive bargaining by the union is inherently political advocacy and indistinguishable from lobbying,” wrote George Will on Sunday, directly implicating the First Amendment.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that there’s a constitutional difference between a union’s political activities and its collective bargaining work. Compelling workers to fund the former would infringe on their freedom of speech, the court ruled in the 1977. But under current law, collective bargaining is different. Imposing conditions, such as requiring mandatory dues, or limiting the scope of their negotiations to wages and benefits, is fair game.

If the Janus plaintiffs win their case, this critical distinction would be dismantled. (A decision is expected by June, when the court’s term ends.) A union’s bargaining and political lobbying would be treated the same — as protected free speech. In other words, the court would actually be elevating the free speech standards of bargaining. That, in turn, could bring with it new legal protections.

“If the plaintiffs are right that collective bargaining is political speech indistinguishable from lobbying, well, the flip side of that coin is that that protected free speech can’t be restricted,” said Ed Maher, a spokesperson for the International Union of Operating Engineers. “We don’t think this has been thoughtfully considered by the plaintiffs, and it is our belief that a win for Janus will open a tremendous Pandora’s box.”

This Pandora’s box, Maher suggested to The Intercept, holds all sorts of chaotic possibilities for the U.S. legal system and state governments across the country. Nearly all states impose some form of restriction on collective bargaining, limiting who can bargain and what workers can bargain over. If the Janus plaintiffs win in court, the theory goes, then workers could start bringing First Amendment challenges to limitations on their bargaining rights, like the restrictions Walker, the Wisconsin governor, passed in 2011.

And, as the three cases filed last week demonstrate, they’ve already started.

Courts have long sought to avoid applying First Amendment rights to unions. From the earliest court decisions that concerned worker protests in the 19th century, as labor writer and strategist Shaun Richman has written, judges have tended to treat unions “as criminal conspiracies that interfere with employers’ property and contract rights.” And while courts have chipped away further at the free speech rights of workers and unions over the last half-century, they have also expanded the free speech protections afforded to employers and corporations.

Ann C. Hodges, a labor law professor at the University of Richmond agrees that a win for the Janus plaintiffs could invite all sorts of new legal challenges. Writing recently for the American Constitution Society, Hodges said:

Courts have regularly ruled that states like Wisconsin can provide collective bargaining rights to some groups of employees and not others, using the rational basis test to find no equal protection violation… But if all union activity is protected political speech, then these distinctions implicate fundamental rights, invoking strict scrutiny for such classifications. Thus, the differential treatment of employee groups by the states may not survive. Indeed, unions may even have an argument that there is a constitutional right to collective bargaining.

Equally unlikely to survive are many governmental employer restrictions on employee speech. A long line of cases allows government employers to impose various restrictions on employee speech. The Supreme Court distinguishes employee from citizen speech, permitting employers to limit and control employee speech in the interests of the government as employer… A ruling in favor of the Janus plaintiffs could obliterate the distinction, requiring employers to tolerate much unwanted speech by their employees.

Some left activists remain understandably skeptical that Janus could lead to some interesting or even good opportunities for labor, arguing, as Richman wrote, that a judiciary that “that could buy such a craven argument as Janus will refuse to take the precedent to its logical conclusion and shamelessly waving away workers’ free speech rights.” But if the anti-Trump backlash leads to a wave of liberal judge appointments, the legal landscape could grow significantly more friendly for unions over the next few election cycles. Plus, unless Janus ends with an extremely narrow ruling, it would be a while before the Supreme Court could really stamp out all the knock-on cases, even if it wanted to. In other words, legal chaos could reign for years in the lower courts.

Richman goes so far as to say that Janus “could hand new liberal majorities a roadmap for restoring a legal balance of power between corporations and workers.” Or, as Sweeney of Local 150 puts it, “The free speech rights being invoked by the union-busters behind Janus work both ways.”

How Labor Is Thinking Ahead to a Post-Trump World

Originally published in The Intercept on January 21, 2018.
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The American labor movement, over the past four decades, has had two golden opportunities to shift the balance of power between workers and bosses — first in 1978, with unified Democratic control of Washington, and again in 2009. Both times, the unions came close and fell short, leading, in no small part, to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today.

Just over 10 percent of workers are unionized, down from 35 percent in the mid 1950s. Potentially, though, a wave of Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 could give labor groups one last chance to turn things around. With an eye toward that moment, labor’s leading strategists are coming together to build a program that avoids the mistakes of the last two rounds.

Strike One: 1978

The National Labor Relations Act — a foundational law that guarantees the rights of private sector employees to unionize — was passed in 1935, and more than 40 years later, President Jimmy Carter, urged on by the AFL-CIO, came out in support of federal labor law reform. “The purpose of this [proposed] legislation is to make the laws which govern labor-management relations work more efficiently, quickly, and equitably and to ensure that our labor laws fulfill the promise made to employees and employers,” Carter said at the time.

The law would have addressed a number of issues that still remain on labor’s agenda today, such as faster union elections and tougher penalties for employers who refuse to bargain and violate labor law. “We didn’t try for revolutionary things; we pushed for things we thought we could get broad support for,” said Ray Marshall, who had served as labor secretary in the Carter administration. But with 59 votes in the Senate, a 44-year-old freshman Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch, had filibustered the law, and it failed.

One of the revolutionary things the administration did not try for was the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill, which guaranteed a federal job to anybody who wanted one. It represented the height of labor’s aspirations coming out of the Great Society and what liberals (at least the ones who had not turned toward the free market as the answer) saw as one of the final legs of the stool. Carter was having none of it, and a much-weakened version went through instead. Anger at Carter’s inability to deliver for labor led many unions to back the primary challenge launched by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Despite Carter’s reputation as a progressive and the good work he has done since leaving office, his presidency is not remembered fondly in many union households.

Strike Two: 2009

The labor movement had another rare opportunity in 2009. Barack Obama had won the presidency, and Democrats not only took over Congress, but also seized an unexpected 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Labor wasted no time vocalizing its demand for the passage of the Employer Free Choice Act, a law known as EFCA that would have given workers the right to join a union as soon as a majority of employees signed cards in support of the move. The legislation also would have stiffened penalties on employers who violated labor laws and forced recalcitrant employers to negotiate contracts with new unions.

The unifying idea behind these three reforms was that policies were needed to make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain contracts once they did. Research at the time showed a steep rise in the illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s, and the National Labor Relations Board election process — to certify or decertify a union as a unit’s bargaining representative — was widely seen as tilted toward anti-union employers. Even when workers did vote for union representation through NLRB elections, many employers then refused to bargain, with only 38 percent of unions securing a contract within a year of certification.

Unions started discussions around EFCA in 2003, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. In 2007, Kennedy and Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y., introduced the bill, which passed in the House 241-185 — including 13 votes from Republicans. Though EFCA also had majority support in the Senate, it was blocked by a Republican filibuster.

So when Democrats took control in 2008, with a filibuster-proof majority to boot, the prospect of EFCA’s passage was tantalizing.

In 2009, progressives believed the odds were in their favor — all it would take was getting the votes of all 59 Democrats and independents, and hanging on to Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who co-sponsored the 2007 bill. Unions predicted they could add at least 5 million members to their rolls in just a few years if EFCA were to pass.

The business community hated EFCA, correctly recognizing that it would have shifted power relations between workers and employers. “This will be Armageddon,” the vice president for labor policy at the Chamber of Commerce complained. Before his inauguration, Obama told the Washington Post he knew the business community saw EFCA as “the devil incarnate.”

But the politics ended up being far more treacherous than labor anticipated — or perhaps more than the movement allowed itself to see.

“We never had 60 votes for EFCA, we just didn’t,” said Sharon Block, who worked as senior labor counsel for Kennedy on the Senate committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions in 2008. “We didn’t have all the Dems, even though we were closer than we had been before.”

Though EFCA tackled several areas, the provision that remains most memorable is “card check,” which would have allowed workers to form a union once a majority signed pro-union cards. (Labor organizers prefer the term “majority sign-up,” but card check is what stuck.)

The proposal was deeply controversial, in part because unions found it tough to explain why they were discouraging NLRB elections, in which workers could vote by secret ballot. Suddenly, Democrats and unions found themselves on the defensive, pushing back against arguments that they were anti-democratic. EFCA opponents argued they were merely trying to protect workers from coercive employee pressure — a talking point that resonated even as they expressed no similar concern regarding the similar, well-documented pressure coming from employers.

“There was a lot of not terribly sexy, but good reforms in EFCA to shape public opinion along the lines of fairness and stopping intimidation, but instead the conversation was about fattening the coffers of union bosses through anti-democratic methods, that unions don’t want you to have the right to vote,” recalled Louis Nayman, who worked then as a director of organization at the American Federation of Teachers. “Opponents even got George McGovern, the darling of the left, to do a 60-second anti-EFCA ad paid for by [anti-union activist] Rick Berman.”

Labor leaders still disagree about the reasons for EFCA’s failure.

Some say it’s the fault of moderate Democrats — like former Sen. Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas — who said she’d only vote for the bill if the card check provision was removed. (Lincoln lost her re-election bid to a Republican in 2010.)

Others blame Obama for not prioritizing the legislation, instead putting his energies and political capital behind health care reform.

And some say it had to do with a weak ground game from the labor movement and progressives, who never really mobilized the public enough to hold Congress and the president accountable. “There was this ‘Hey we just got you elected and now you owe us’ way of thinking about the world,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Obama at some point said, ‘You’ll have to make me do it,’ and that was not taken seriously to the degree it needed to be. To do something that will significantly shift power relations in the U.S. cannot be done quietly as a negotiated deal, it cannot happen without a loud clamor for it. It needs to be big enough and presented in ways people can understand.”

Block, the former lawyer to Kennedy in the Senate, doesn’t think Obama’s lackluster advocacy really made much of a difference. In fact, she said, some version of EFCA probably would have gotten through, but the final blow came when Senate Democrats lost 60 votes following Kennedy’s death. When the Massachusetts Democrat died of brain cancer in August 2009, he was succeeded by Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and the filibuster majority was no more, and EFCA never came up for a vote again.

The cost of losing EFCA was devastating, said Block. “We had put all of our eggs in that legislative basket and we didn’t win. And we really haven’t seen fundamental labor law reform since then.”

Carrie Gleason, who directs the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, said EFCA would have generated momentum to do even more, but after it failed, “the labor movement lost steam on a broader agenda.”

Though it was unsuccessful, Nayman, who is now retired, thinks the movement to pass EFCA alarmed and energized mainstream Republicans, who were suddenly fearful that unions might dramatically boost their membership, thereby increasing Democratic power throughout the United States.

“Right-wing funders capitalized on that and said, ‘Let’s never be put in this position again, let’s go after their money,’” said Nayman, who draws links between EFCA’s failure and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s subsequent rise to power, which came in part as a result of his focus on weakening public sector unions.  “When you aim to shoot the king, you better kill him, and with EFCA that didn’t happen,” Nayman said. “Every action has a reaction.”

“During the EFCA fight, I think there was a lot more energy on the business side, it felt like there were more people being brought in to canvass against it than there was union rank-and-file being brought to pressure Congress,” reflected Lawrence Mishel, who led the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in D.C., for decades until his retirement in December.

One consequence of failing to pass anything major on the federal level was a shift to state and local labor organizing — turning to city councils, legislatures, and ballot initiatives. The Fight for $15, for example, took off in 2012 and over the next five years, led to a wave of successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, pass fair scheduling bills, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

“A lot of us looked at the Fight for $15 in the beginning and thought they were out of their minds,” said Jacobs. “But they ended up changing the whole debate, in part by going out with clear, bold demands everyone could understand.”

But one result of all those local gains has been a push by Republicans in states to pass “preemption” laws, which prohibit local governments from passing laws on certain issues, effectively blocking cities from passing progressive legislation. “We’ve made tremendous gains, but with Republicans pushing for national preemption, everything is at risk if we don’t organize and build power in Congress,” said Gleason.

A Better Deal and Beyond

In 2017, a group of prominent congressional Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, unveiled a package of labor reforms, under the banner “A Better Deal for American Workers.” The package includes ideas to strengthen the right to strike (by banning the permanent replacement of striking workers), push for mechanisms to ensure employers negotiate a first contract with unions (similar to what was proposed in EFCA), and ban so-called right-to-work laws, which have allowed workers to shirk paying fees to unions that represent them.

Mishel, the recently retired economist, called the Better Deal ideas “seriously bold” and Jacobs of UC Berkeley agreed, adding that the proposals seem to reflect “a much deeper understanding” among Democratic leadership and Democratic thinkers of what ultimately needs to be done. (Card check is notably not included in the list of Better Deal proposals.)

Also on the table is a bill called the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act, backed by the labor federation AFL-CIO. The WAGE Act would make it easier for workers to organize, stiffen penalties against employers who violate labor law, and give workers the right to file discrimination lawsuits if they’re punished for union activity.

At AFL-CIO’s convention in October, the union passed a resolution pledging to protect workers’ right to organize, heighten employer penalties, make negotiating first contracts easier, and protect immigrant workers from exploitation and retaliation.

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel at AFL-CIO, told The Intercept that the group’s immediate strategy is to focus on those four planks and push for the WAGE Act, ultimately launching a longer-term conversation about what more fundamental change is needed.

The looming question is whether these ideas are enough to confront the challenges faced by working people in 2018. Most labor experts agree that if these proposals had passed back in 1978, when Hatch famously filibustered attempts at reform, economic inequality could look very different today. But what about now?

Larry Cohen, Our Revolution board chair and former president of the Communications Workers of America, said labor should aim higher, since no Republican would vote for any of the Better Deal ideas anyway. “If our frame is collective bargaining, how does that look in the rest of the world, and why do we come up short?” Cohen asked, noting that it’s much harder to bargain collectively in the United States compared to many other democratic countries. “Everyone lectures us about the global economy, and we need to lecture back,” he said.

In the meantime, labor is sliding backward. The Supreme Court will issue a decision later this year that could severely weaken public sector unions, and President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board is doing its very best to overturn critical pro-worker decisions issued during the Obama era. And, because the basic structure of the National Labor Relations Act hasn’t changed much since it was first established in 1935, employers have had decades to develop new legal strategies to weaken the law; their strategies include forced arbitration and misclassifying workers as independent contractors.

A number of creative proposals have been floated recently — and might attract attention from progressive legislators looking for ways to stand out in a competitive 2020 primary.

Among these ideas include a push to end at-will firing, and a call for workers to demand their rights be treated as constitutional rights. “I think this frame is very helpful to talk about the core of what it means to have more of a say at your job,” said Gleason. “The right to free speech at work, the idea that your employer can’t just fire you because they don’t like you or because you spoke up about your beliefs. … I think people in America don’t really realize how powerless they are at their jobs until it’s too late.”

Other ideas include exploring so-called sectoral labor standards — where workers across entire industries, such as all finance workers or all retail workers, bargain collectively. Sectoral bargaining has been an important lever for workers in countries like France, Germany, and Brazil. Right now in the United States, workers collectively bargain with their individual employers, but sectoral bargaining would mean negotiations could take place industry-wide.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Fight for $15 and a union is that the need for real transformative demands are important,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice. “People want demands that are worth the risk.” Gupta’s group is exploring proposals like the idea of universal family care and “co-enforcement,” under which community-based organizations would partner with workers to help enforce progressive labor laws.

Jacobs said pushing for joint-employer liability, meaning pushing legislators to end corporations’ ability to shirk legal responsibility through franchising, also needs to be on the table. While the NLRB under Obama started to address this issue through a critical decision issued in 2015, the NLRB reversed the ruling last month, making it once again extremely difficult to hold corporations liable.

Nayman hopes to see a greater willingness among progressives to reach out to moderate Democrats on labor reform. “I would not start my conversation with Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown, I would start with the Blue Dogs, because you’re going to need them too,” he said. “Rather than treating moderates as enemies and sellouts, recognize that we’ll need them on board for this.”

“The lesson [from EFCA] is you don’t wait until the wave hits, you begin to work when times look tough,” added Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at AFL-CIO. “So we’ll begin drafting and introducing legislation, which we’ve done in terms of the WAGE Act, and we’re going to work on getting support from members and candidates.”

Unions should precondition endorsements for candidates on a commitment to support the WAGE Act, he added. “The lesson is get to work, regardless of the political environment you’re in, build support, awareness, and be ready.”