New York's union leaders react to Supreme Court decision

Jun 28, 2018

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

The court, in a 5-4 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 workers union, said the lawsuit was “backed by anti-worker extremists” who are trying to “rig the economy.”

Business groups applauded, though. 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 said he thinks the ruling “galvanizes” the union movement and unions are fighting back.

Pallotta said unions anticipated that the Supreme Court, with its current political configuration, would rule against AFSCME in the case, and he said 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 added 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, Gov. Andrew 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.

Pallotta said 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, such as 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’re going to have to go outside the organization to get one,” said Pallotta, who added that could be “a very disturbing experience for someone.”  

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

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

Girardin said the Supreme Court ruling also could 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 Girardin. “And less like captive payers.”

Pallotta said he does not expect 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 state workers’ personal details, 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, though, are not commonly released on FOIL forms.