Defiant National Union Presidents Gathered in Pittsburgh Speak of Unity Following Janus Ruling
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Author: Daniel Moore
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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, delivers a speech at the American Federation of Teachers national convention at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Saturday, July 14, 2018.

One of them delivered a rousing, sermon-like call to action. Another cracked a series of jokes and performed an acoustic rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” with the familiar line “I’m sticking to the union.” Another put the current hardships into the context of labor history and promised to organize more workers.

The three national union presidents took the stage together Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, to address the American Federation of Teachers convention — and to show 3,000 educators, nurses and health professionals that organized labor stands prepared to stick together following an historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that could dramatically undercut union budgets. 

“It is so important that you see us all four standing together as one,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. 

“Our four great unions enjoy indestructible bonds of solidarity,” Mr. Saunders said, his voice rising to a crescendo. “There is no daylight between us, not even an inch. And that’s never been more important than it is now.

Mr. Saunders was on the losing end of the Janus vs. AFSCME ruling in June that banned unions from collecting fees from nonmembers in the public sector. The court’s conservative majority voted 5-4 that the mandatory fees violate an individual’s free speech rights, upending 40 years of legal precedent and affecting teachers, police, bus drivers and other government employees.

Following the ruling, unions have sought publicly to project a united front while scurrying behind the scenes to ensure nonmembers continue to contribute fees that cover the costs of bargaining and enforcing contracts. (Political donations are removed from nonmember fees.)

Mr. Saunders was flanked by Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, president of the National Education Association, and Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, introduced them. 

The message was clear: The Janus ruling — as well as the prospect of more rulings against labor as President Trump seeks to install Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court — was another political attack on organized labor that unions would overcome.

“I’m looking at you, and I don’t see fear,” Ms. Eskelsen-Garcia said to the crowd. “I’m a sixth-grade teacher from Utah who has 39 kids on rainy day recess. The Koch brothers cannot scare me!”

Ms. Henry, in an interview after her speech, said the SEIU has not changed the content of its message to members and nonmembers following the Janus ruling.

But it has expanded the ways the union reaches them, including the addition of text messages that alert members of upcoming events and urging them to contact their representative in Congress on issues important to the union. 

The SEIU started using such tactics years ago to organize more workers, she said. 

“With voters, we door-knock, we phone, we do digital outreach, we invite people to take leadership and take action,” Ms. Henry said. “Those same principles we use to motivate a vote to turnout are the principles we’re using to get people to stick with their union.”

The union has also pressed to get information about itself to new hires in public sector jobs. The union has bargained contracts that require the union get time at a new employee’s orientation to explain the benefits of joining a union and how the dues are spent. The union has allowed new members to sign up electronically. 

“I would say that our internal membership communication has matched what we do with voters” in organizing drives, Ms. Henry said. The communication has proven effective in other states that have passed right-to-work laws, which allow any workers in the public or private sector to withhold union fees. (Pennsylvania does not have such a law.) 

The SEIU has been the most prolific of all the major unions in organizing workers in the Pittsburgh region, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found in an analysis of data from the National Labor Relations Board.

For now, the union presidents will have big stages to make lofty promises.

Ms. Eskelsen-Garcia just wrapped up the NEA’s convention in Minneapolis a few days ago. Mr. Saunders stopped by as AFSCME’s own convention is scheduled to begin in Boston and was unavailable for an interview.

Though the travel window was tight, “I told them, I had to come to Pittsburgh and talk with you,” Mr. Saunders said.

“We’ve risen to the moment in the face of hardship before, and we will do it again,” he said.

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