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New York's Union Leaders React To Janus Decision

Karen DeWitt

New York’s union leaders are condemning the US Supreme Court decision which upheld the right of a worker not to pay union dues. But a newly passed state law might mitigate the effects of in Janus v AFSCME.

The court, in a five to four ruling, agreed with Illinois state worker Mark Janus that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was compelled to have $45 a month deducted from  his paycheck by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, to pay for collective bargaining , even though Janus did not want to be part of the union.  

Union leaders in New York condemned the decision, as did many Democratic political leaders.

The Public Employees Federation, the largest state worker union, says the lawsuit was “backed by anti-worker extremists “ who are trying to “rig the economy”.

Business groups applauded. The state’s Business Council called it a “welcome victory for employee choice and freedom of speech”.

New York State United Teachers union President Andy Pallotta says he thinks the ruling “galvanizes” the union movement and he says unions are fighting back.

Pallotta says unions anticipated that the Supreme Court , with its current political configuration, would rule against AFSCME in the case, and he says union officials have been reaching out to membership to remind them of the value of the organization.

“We’ve reconnected with our members,” said Pallotta, who says the outreach included knocking on doors and meeting with union members in the schools. “To make sure they know what the union does for them.”

In New York, Governor Cuomo and the legislature passed a law in March to help mitigate the expected effects from the Janus decision. The new rules make it easier for unions to recruit potential members when  the state, municipality or school district hires  a new employee, and can also tighten the time period allowed for someone to opt out of the union.

NYSUT’s Pallotta says while unions must allow non union members to benefit from any raises or health or pension benefits gained through a union contract with employers, they now can withhold other perks, like special deals on life insurance, or even, free legal services if they are accused of misconduct on the job.

“A lot of times people need an attorney, and if they go looking for one, they’ll have to go outside the organization to get one,” said Pallotta, who says it would be  “a very disturbing experience”.

Credit Karen DeWitt
Sign outside the State Capitol Thursday June 27th, 2018.

Ken Giardin, with the fiscal watchdog group The Empire Center, says the new state law is a “favor to the union leaders” and bad public policy. . But he says unions in New York still stand to lose significant revenue, and possibly, political clout, from the changes. He says when Michigan recently changed its laws and stopped compelling public workers to pay for union activities, 20% opted out.

“After people were give the right to choose, about one in five teachers chose to leave the union,” Giardin said.

Giardin says the Supreme Court ruling could actually strengthen unions and their core mission, because now they will be forced to compete, and will have to “sell” their product.

“It’s in the unions’ own interests that they start treating these people more like customers,” said Giardin, “And less like captive payers.”

Pallotta, with the teachers union, says he does not believe there will be a “sizeable drop” in his union’s membership numbers.   

Later in the day, Cuomo took another step that he said will protect unions . He signed an executive order that will shield the personal details  of state workers, like their address and phone number,  from the Freedom of Information Law, so that anti union forces cannot have access to the workers. Those details are not commonly released on FOIL forms.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.