Many warned a Supreme Court ruling would cripple unions. NY's remain strong

February 22, 2019

by Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau

ALBANY – Labor leaders and top government officials in New York warned that Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court case decided last June, was a direct attack on public-employee unions by conservatives who wanted to see their power diminished.

"A case before Washington's Supreme Court seeks to effectively end public labor unions," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in January 2018.

"Let’s call it what it is: an attack on the freedom of working men and women to have a voice in the workplace," state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said three months before that.

The decision, however, hasn't left much of a dent so far in two of New York's largest public unions, federal labor filings show.

• The New York State United Teachers union, which represents educators in classrooms and on college campuses, actually added 15,097 dues-paying members in its 2018 fiscal year, upping its active membership to 426,396, or a 4 percent increase.

• The Civil Service Employees Association, a union of blue-collar state and municipal workers, also saw a slight bump to 230,354 dues-paying members in its 2018 fiscal year, up 4,294 members from the prior year.

The membership increase wasn't enough to completely wipe out the immediate impact of the Janus decision, which suddenly freed about 35,000 NYSUT and CSEA non-members from paying "agency fees" to the unions to defray their collective bargaining costs.

But the bump does suggest the unions were able to largely retain their membership and convince some non-members and new hires to join, defying predictions from some that the decision would lead union members to defect en masse.

And it suggests a multi-year, door-knocking effort by unions to maintain their numbers seems to have paid off in the short term, aided in part by laws approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers that made it harder for workers to drop their union membership.

New York is the most unionized state in the continental U.S.

"I think any labor leader that’s being honest really felt there would be a drop," CSEA president Danny Donohue said.

"But I was pleasantly shocked that the work we had done the years before paid off. Our members were not about to give up their membership."

The Janus decision affected public unions in states that allowed what's known as "agency fees" or "shop fees," which was a charge to workers who declined to join the union but still benefited from collective bargaining.

Essentially, many public workers were given two choices: Join the union and pay dues, or not join the union and pay an agency fee, which was slightly less.

The Supreme Court ruled agency fees — which were routed to the unions' coffers — were unconstitutional, essentially allowing those non-members to still benefit from collective bargaining without having to pay the unions any money.

That did result in an immediate hit to NYSUT and CSEA, which lost the ability to collect money from 20,762 and 14,405 agency fee payers, respectively, according to the organizations' U.S. Department of Labor filings.

But the loss of non-member fees was partially offset by dues from the unions' new members — a mix of new employees and those the unions convinced to join.

And it didn't have a discernible impact on the unions' finances during their 2018 fiscal years, which ended on Aug. 31 for NYSUT — two months after the Janus decision — and Sept. 30 for CSEA.

Both unions, in fact, collected more dues and agency fees in 2018, with NYSUT collecting $145 million compared to $138 million the previous year and CSEA collecting $123 million, an increase of $1.4 million over the previous year.

NYSUT's cut of dues comes to $378 a year per full-time member, who also pay their national and local union chapters. CSEA members pay up to $784 a year.

The unions' membership numbers and finances were culled from filings made with the U.S. Department of Labor, which requires unions that represent private-sector or federal employees to report annually.

NYSUT and CSEA both have a small amount of private-sector members. Many of the state's other public unions do not, which means they don't have to file.

Some unions, such as District Council 37 in New York City, work on a different fiscal year and won't have to file until after June.

Unions Were Ready

CSEA and NYSUT spent the few years leading up to the Janus decision organizing, putting together massive teams of workers, retirees and volunteers who knocked on members' doors extolling the benefits of organized labor and urging them to stay.

“Initially, we did lose the objectors," Donohue said. "But we’ve actually started growing again, and that’s really because we’ve been running for about three years now a program where we call our members, send them letters and tell them we’re coming to their house and we want to talk to them. And then we show up.”


Opponents are knocking, too

Supporters of the Janus decision have been knocking on doors, too.

One group, New Choice NY, has been active in the Albany and Buffalo areas, making sure public union members know they have the court-affirmed right to drop their membership and stop paying dues or fees.

The organization, which has also put up digital billboards and other marketing materials in the union-heavy Capital Region, is part of an effort by Oklahoma-based group Americans for Fair Treatment, which is led by a three-member board with ties to major conservative donors Charles and David Koch.

The group has a website explaining public workers' Janus rights and showing how they can opt out of their union.

Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for New Choice NY, said the group's message has been getting through despite the rise in union membership.

"We have no stake in whether people stay or go," he said.

"Our entire purpose was to help people make an informed decision in light of the court case. It is insignificant to us how many people decide to stay with the union and how many people decide to opt out."

New laws help unions

New Choice NY's door-knocking efforts were not as robust as the unions' organization.

Cuomo and lawmakers also took steps last year to make it easier for unions to retain their members in New York, where about one in five workers belong to a labor organization.

Among them: Public unions in New York are now able to allow a limited window each year when members can drop out, and the state is required to promptly inform the unions of any new hires and their contact information.

The new hire law has been particularly important, Donohue and Pallotta said.

It's allowed the unions to make their case directly and quickly to potential new members, who are now faced with the decision of joining the union and paying dues or not joining the union and paying nothing.

Impact may be felt over time

Whether unions can convince new hires to join their organizations over time will be the true test of Janus' impact, said Ken Girardin of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative, Albany-based think tank that has closely analyzed NYSUT's federal filings and Janus' impact.

That will play out over "many, many years," he said.

"Fewer people are paying government unions than were a year ago," Girardin said, referring to non-members who were paying agency fees and no longer are.

"The big remaining question is how this affects the union's ability to get new hires to join. What happens to union efforts to recruit new employees now that they can't force them to pay? That's the big unknown."

So far, Pallotta and Donohue said new hires are joining the union at high rates.

The impact of Janus on NYSUT has been "minimal" so far, Pallotta said.

“We’ve done a lot of preparation, like anybody who is preparing for a storm," he said. "We were told this was going to be the end of organized labor, this would destroy us. It didn’t happen, and I think our members really know the value of sticking with the union.”

Donohue said the court case was a "kick in our butts."

"There were a lot of unions, and we were one of them at one point, that were getting lazy and living on our laurels," he said. "But I think our numbers have proven since then that more members are enjoying our union than are leaving.”