Union executive says Friedrichs right-to-work case would bring “needed” changes to labor movement

Jan 11, 2016

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a precedent-setting workers’ rights case that could end forced unionism of government workers.

The landmark Friedrichs v California Teachers' Association right-to-work case was filed by California public teachers who argue the union dues they are forced to pay are unconstitutional.  If the Court agrees, teachers and other state employees will have the right to decide for themselves whether to pay union dues.  Forcing public workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment will be illegal.

Greg Devereux, Executive Director of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), recently admitted he and other union leaders believe they will lose the Friedrichs case.  And surprisingly, he doesn’t think it will be the union-crippling catastrophe they have long feared.

Speaking to the Washington State Labor Council Convention last year, Devereux said Friedrichs “may force change that we’ve needed for a long time, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily.”

Devereux urged his union colleagues to “see Friedrichs as an opportunity.”  He believes many members are disconnected from their union, because they often don’t see union representatives in their workplace, fighting for their interests and solving their problems. 

That is because unions today are primarily concerned with influencing politics and figuring out ways to use that influence to compel more workers to pay union dues. A SCOTUS ruling ending compulsory unionism, he said, would force labor to “internally organize in a way we never have before” to demonstrate to workers “the value and power” of unions.

Devereux reminded the audience that the WFSE union was built over the past 60 years with no collective bargaining law. Washington has only had such a law since 2002.  As he put it, “We’ve been quite successful for decades without legislative underpinnings.”

Devereux is not the only labor executive who thinks right-to-work can make unions stronger.  Secretary-Treasurer of the United Auto Workers, Gary Casteel, prefers to organize in a right-to-work state:

“You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’  I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

Labor researcher, Richard Yeselson, says Devereux and Casteel are onto something:

“There is an argument sometimes made by union activists that unions should run persuasion campaigns to collect dues because the workers are more invested and supportive of an energized organization than when dues are passively/invisibly collected on a union’s behalf. There is some evidence that this is true.”

Case in point is Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, Nevada, one of the most powerful local unions in the country.  The union operates in a right-to-work state and boasts close to 100 percent membership.  Workers recognize the value provided by the union and voluntarily pay the dues to fund those efforts.

Yeselson credits Culinary Local 226’s “intense advocacy” for its exceptional success in a right-to-work state.  

Yeselson contends the “invisibility and ease” of automatic dues collection in non-right-to-work states has made unions dependent on compulsory membership.  He says today’s unions are “logistically, and, often, intellectually, atrophied,” precisely because they do not have to earn members and dues. 

Indeed, the inherent weakness of forced union membership is often revealed once the mandatory dues requirement is removed.  After Wisconsin’s collective bargaining reforms were enacted in 2011, the Wisconsin Education Council lost more than half of its membership and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lost a staggering 88 percent of its membership. Clearly those workers did not think their union was earning its keep.

Kudos to Devereux for not falling into the hysterical doomsday trap of believing unions cannot survive without a forced membership and instead focusing on the positive opportunities a right-to-work ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court would bring to both unions and workers. Right-to-work laws are only crippling to unions if they allow them to be.

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