With a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Janus v. AFCSME case expected any day, Connecticut’s public sector unions are trying to convince members not to opt-out of membership if the Supreme Court decides in favor of Mark Janus.
The Connecticut State Employees Association and the American Federation of Teachers informed their members of a Freedom of Information request for union members’ contact information that originated out of Illinois.
Leaders say this information could be used for an opt-out campaign in the wake of a positive Janus decision.
“We expect these organizations use personal information obtained through FOI requests to send anti-union messages encouraging you to drop your union,” wrote Stephen Anderson, President of CSEA SEIU Local 2001 in an email to members. “Arming yourself with the knowledge of the Janus funders’ motives is the first step toward being prepared to resist their scheme.”
The Janus v. AFSCME case will determine whether public sector employees must pay agency fees to unions for collective bargaining costs, even though they opt out of union membership.
The agency fees are generally 80 to 90 percent of regular dues. The discount reflects the amount of money the union determines is devoted toward its political work.
Mark Janus — a public sector employee from Illinois — argues that because collective bargaining determines tax rates, the cost of government services and state and municipal budgets all public sector union work and bargaining is inherently political, therefore any fees paid to the unions pays for political work.
A decision in favor of Janus would essentially make Connecticut a right-to-work state for public sector employees, allowing government workers to opt out without paying any fees to unions. The decision would not affect unions in the private sector.
A similar case brought by California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs in 2016 tied 4-4 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the Court evenly divided. With the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, many believe the court may rule in Janus' favor.
While a positive Janus decision would only affect public employees, the public sector is the largest bastion of union power in the United States, and leaders worry a significant number of members will opt out if they no longer have to pay agency fees.
Leaders have cause to be concerned. A 2016 survey of union members across 27 states by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Association of American Educators showed nearly one-third would opt out of union membership.
The survey also showed that nearly 40 percent of members didn’t know they already could opt out of membership, although they would still have to pay agency fees.
Nearly half of those surveyed believed workers should have a choice whether or not to be part of a union.
In preparation for the decision some public sector unions across the country have tried to establish legislative fixes to prevent a loss of funds or altered members’ ability to opt out of the union, while others have warned of mass protest, strikes and “chaos.”
Shaun Richman, the former organizing director for AFT, said "If the Janus decision comes down as many of us fear then the proper response is to create chaos," in an interview with In These Times, a labor-focused news website.
In Connecticut, union leaders attempted a small legislative fix through a “captive audience” bill, which would have prevented employers from discussing union issues with employees.
Although the bill would have primarily affected private businesses, it died after Attorney General George Jepsen issued an opinion stating the bill was pre-empted by federal labor law.
But some Connecticut unions are working behind the scenes to limit members’ ability to opt out.
Most state employee union contracts include a provision allowing members to opt-out and become agency fee payers with 30 days written notice. The latest wage contracts approved as part of the 2017 SEBAC Concessions Agreement largely left the opt-out language unchanged.
But unions like AFSCME and AFT-CT have established strict windows of time when a member can opt out by encouraging members to sign new union cards.
An AFSCME member can only opt out 10 days before or 20 days after "the end of any yearly period," according to the union membership card, while AFT-CT members are limited to 15 days of their membership anniversary date.
The requirement may be difficult to meet if a member is unsure of their membership anniversary date, which differs from their date of hire. Both unions represent thousands of Connecticut municipal and state employees and teachers.
There also remains the possibility of protests in the wake of a positive Janus decision.
Union leaders held a rally on the steps of the Connecticut State Supreme Court in February to protest the Janus case as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments.
More recently, AFT-CT began sponsoring the Connecticut Poor People’s Campaign, which is engaged in protests held on Mondays throughout the country, known as “Moral Mondays,” to promote social justice issues.
AFT-CT is using the platform to promote union issues, as well. According to the AFT’s website, “This action will focus on defending public education and protecting union rights at a time when both are under attack.”
At a small rally outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Monday, speaker Bishop John Selders of the Amistad United Church of Christ praised labor unions, while members of SEIU 1199 waved yellow flags.
Over the course of several weeks, protesters have blocked traffic on Capitol Avenue to bring attention to their cause. Numerous people — including AFT-CT President Jan Hochadel — participated in planned arrests.
The AFT-CT also joined a petition drive with the Action Network — an online organizing platform — “demanding candidates seeking our union's support choose which side they're on — Connecticut's working families or the radical forces bent on silencing our voices,”
Although Supreme Court decisions are usually announced on Mondays, the Court said it will release two decisions on Thursday of this week.