By Dana Milbank
Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.
When Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus v. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst. The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.
Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus — more than offsetting the 84,000 “agency-fee payers” it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling. And the union has had a burst of energy. There has been a surge of high-profile strikes by teachers’ unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Rallies, pickets and local campaigns mushroomed by the hundreds. The union has tallied 11 organizing wins since Janus, tripled its “member engagement” budget from 2014 and nearly doubled the number of voters it contacted in 2018.
“Alito put his thumb on the scales of justice for the anti-union ideologues,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It was a wake-up call to everyone. Everybody got engaged.”
Labor leaders ought to thank Alito — and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case. Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump’s hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.
Unions had become ossified, serving as member-service organizations that offered workplace representation and collective-bargaining assistance but not much fire. Now, the existential threat posed by Janus hasn’t materialized — membership has held steady — and, instead, has spurred a renewal of activism.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees feared it could lose 30 percent of its revenue. Instead, the AFSCME reports that for every member becoming a free rider since Janus, it has gained seven new members. It has continued to notch organizing wins (220 since July 2016, resulting in more than 22,000 newly organized members). It has also trained more than 25,000 activists over the past three years to spread the union gospel.
“Folks were writing our obituary. They thought this was going to be our death knell. They failed,” Lee Saunders, AFSCME’s president, crows. “They overreached. Now we’ve got the momentum. We’re organizing like never before.”
Read More: So much for the labor movement’s funeral