Hundred millionaire Bruce Rauner just couldn’t wait to tell Illinois state workers that the U.S. Supreme Court had given them what he considered a gift.
Within hours of the court’s ruling in the Janus case last week, Rauner, the Republican governor of Illinois, emailed state workers to tell them the decision meant they no longer needed to pay either dues or fair share fees to their labor union but the union would still be required to represent them.
What a deal! Free service! And it was brought to them by Rauner! The governor had filed the lawsuit that led to the Janus decision. When a court tossed him as plaintiff, the right-wing foundations whose billionaire donors paid for the lawsuit drummed up replacement plaintiffs including Mark Janus. He’s an Illinois child support worker who refused to join the union and pay dues and who didn’t even want to pay the smaller fair share fee of $45 a month charged to non-members to cover the union’s costs of bargaining for them.
It was that fee that the Supreme Court said government workers had a free speech right not to pay. The court said unions do not have a corresponding free speech right to refuse to represent non-members.
While Rauner was sending his email urging Illinois workers to bankrupt their unions, right-wing “foundations” across the country started spending the tens of millions they’d received from billionaires like the Walton family and giant corporations like AT&T to do the same thing. These groups are emailing, calling and visiting the homes of government workers.
Of course, right-wing billionaires couldn’t be expected to do this work themselves. Work up a sweat walking door-to-door? No way! So they set up these “foundations” to hire stand-ins, people who look like regular Joes and who are trained to mouth billionaire propaganda. These “regular Joes” will tell state and local government workers that they can give themselves a raise by starving their labor union of funds and still get first-rate union representation. These are wolves in workers’ clothing.
The Guardian newspaper revealed in May that the State Policy Network, a group devoted to causes favoring right-wing billionaires and corporations, had raised $80 million and organized 66 similarly radical “foundations” across the country to destroy labor unions. They prepared an anti-union toolkit to personally target government workers as soon as the court handed down the Janus decision.
The toolkit includes advice for anti-union canvassers, including: when talking to union members, dumb down language and pretend to care about them. It says canvassers should say to union members, “the best interest of union leaders should never be placed above the best interest of union members.”
Of course, it neglects to urge the canvassers to say, “the best interests of billionaires should never be placed above the best interest of workers.”
Wisconsin is right-wing union haters’ touchstone. There, an extremist Republican governor and legislature adopted draconian anti-union measures, restricting issues that government workers could raise in collective bargaining, forbidding fair share fees and requiring unions to recertify every year by receiving affirmative votes from more than half of members and assuming those who did not participate had voted against the union.
One Wisconsin labor organization representing teachers lost 60 percent of its members. Overall in Wisconsin, the percentage of union members in the workforce declined from 14.1 percent in 2011 to 9 percent in 2016. Simultaneously, pay and benefits declined. For teachers, salaries sank 2.6 percent and benefits dropped 18.6 percent.
Losing the power of collective bargaining didn’t work out so well for these workers. But right-wingers believe workers are stupid and must be talked down to, so persuading them to quit their labor organizations and ultimately bankrupt them will be easy.
This is more than an effort by billionaires to slash workers’ income. It’s also a campaign to steal workers’ political power, to silence them. The more unions that billionaires can bankrupt, the less money available to support candidates and causes that help workers.
None of nonmembers’ fair share fees can be used on politics. But unions spend a small portion of members’ dues money to support issues important to workers and on political candidates who pledge to secure programs like Social Security and Medicare. That is almost always Democratic candidates.
It was, after all, a Democratic president and Democratic Congresses that created a clear legal path for workers to form labor unions and that created Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions.
Tom McCabe, the millionaire CEO of the Freedom Foundation, one of the State Policy Network anti-union groups, told the Guardian, “Our goal is to help people who we believe are being held in bondage against their will.” The State Policy Network wrote its donors that it would “rescue” government workers from unions.
Right. That’s billionaires riding in on their white stallions to “free” working people from their bonds to labor unions, the organizations workers created to secure better wages and working conditions for themselves.
Economic self-interest could prompt some workers to drop out of unions if they think they can get the benefits of being in a union for free.
But workers may not like being talked down to by flunkies for billionaires. And despite what the State Policy Network thinks, workers are not stupid. They know if their unions have less money, they’ll be weaker in negotiations and politics. They know that what happened to workers in Wisconsin could happen to them.
They know that massive strikes this year by ill-paid teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky – states that forbid teachers to strike – won raises for them and other state employees.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) added 1,250 members in West Virginia after the teacher walk out there, and the National Education Association (NEA) signed 2.2 percent more members in states where teachers struck.
Also, union members are talking to union members about the value of sticking with the union. Members of the AFT are meeting one-on-one with teachers in 10 states, asking them to sign cards recommitting themselves to the union. They’ve got 530,000 so far, and are working toward the full 1.7 million members.
So that knock at the door might be a fellow union member and not a billionaire’s flunky after all.
Leo W. Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers union. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter @USWBlogger.