America’s Unions Win Key Battle Ahead of Midterm Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Missourians voted Tuesday to repeal a state law banning mandatory union fees–what organized labor-opponents call “right-to-work” laws–a rare victory for unions on an issue where they’ve suffered a series of painful defeats over the past six years.

Federal law require unions to provide fair representation to all employees they represent, whether or not those workers choose to be full dues-paying members. In states that allow mandatory fees, U.S. Supreme Court precedent enables private sector union contracts to require all represented workers help fund the costs of union bargaining and representation, though workers have the option to opt-out of paying for unrelated political activities.

By contrast, in so-called right-to-work states, all union fees are optional, creating a funding gap for unions required to represent non-members for free.

While labor won the Missouri battle, they’ve been losing the larger war. Five other states have passed laws banning mandatory fees since 2012, including historic union strongholds such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Still, the victory is good news for a labor movement that has been under siege by Republican-controlled state governments, the Trump administration and most recently the U.S. Supreme Court. In a triumphant video message released Tuesday night, national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said the “resounding victory” followed a string of labor activism and victories “that remind America that the path to power runs through the labor movement.”

The Missouri law was passed last year by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature and signed by its Republican governor. It had been on hold pending the results of the referendum. The legislature voted in May to move the vote, which would have been on the November ballot, to August—a decision progressives claimed was intended to depress voter turnout efforts. 

The referendum comes six weeks after the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority ruled that the First Amendment prohibits mandatory union fees for government employees (who make up about half of all U.S. union members). The landmark decision set off a planned strategy by anti-union groups, including some linked to conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, which moved quickly to persuade employees to stop paying dues. The efforts aim to deprive the Democratic Party, which relies on financial support from organized labor, of funding.

Union organizers have said they are rushing to counter the assault.

The 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers has more than 800,000 members who are affected by the Supreme Court decision. Of them, more than 530,000 pledged to remain in the union before the June 27 high court ruling, the group said. At hundreds of its local affiliates in states like Minnesota and Illinois, 100 percent of members have done so, the union said.

Missouri voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and is a key battleground in the coming midterm elections. The result in the state’s union fee referendum bolsters unions’ long-held argument that such laws are driven by corporate interests rather than popular support.

In states banning mandatory fees, workers are less than half as likely to have union representation. The laws have already helped reduce Democratic candidates’ share of the presidential vote by 3.5 percent and cut election turnout by 2 to 3 percent, according to a working paper published in January by the National Bureau of Economic Research. U.S. union membership in 2017 was at a record-low 10.7 percent of the workforce, down from 28 percent half a century ago.

Faced with the threat of further decline, labor activists have looked to a range of strategies, including aggressive, community-backed activism such as teachers’ strikes which have roiled states with mandatory fee-bans; increased investment in committees of rank-and-file leaders such as those that have helped a casino workers’ union flourish in fee-banning Nevada; and local laws designed to legislate workplace improvements and test new models of bargaining with bosses.

The challenge for labor advocates is poised to get harder, though. President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has issued a series of opinions that take a broad view of the rights of businesses and a narrow view of the authority of  agencies that regulate them. In one dissent, he argued that undocumented immigrants were excluded from workplace protections under the National Labor Relations Act. Union supporters worry he’ll be part of future 5-4 rulings against them on issues already being advanced by conservative groups, such as claims that unions now owe non-members hundreds of millions of dollars in past fees.

Anti-union groups have also sued over unions’ authority to negotiate contracts on behalf of workers who aren’t members. Meanwhile, the Department of Education in March unilaterally imposed a collective bargaining agreement on its almost 4,000 employees, arguing the union had waived its right to bargain by failing to provide timely responses. And in May, Trump signed executive orders restricting the activities of federal government unions. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.