President's perspective

All eyes on Janus

Michael Mulgrew 2015 PortraitMichael Mulgrew On Feb. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Mark Janus, the lead plaintiff in the case, is bankrolled by deep-pocketed, right-wing organizations intent on busting unions and scaling back worker rights and benefits.

The case challenges the right of public employee unions such as the UFT to collect agency fees from workers who benefit from union services and contracts but are not union members. The Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association lawsuit, which made the same legal arguments, ended in a 4-4 deadlock in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. With conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointee, filling the vacancy on the court, the expectation is the high court will now rule against unions when it hands down a decision, likely in May or June.

Losing the ability to collect agency fees will diminish the UFT’s ability to bargain and advocate on behalf of members.

You only have to look as far as Wisconsin to see what happens to workers’ salary and pension benefits when unions grow weak. In Wisconsin in 2011, a Republican governor and state lawmakers passed legislation eviscerating collective bargaining. Kim Kohlhaas, the president of the Wisconsin-AFT, told me that one year after the anti-union law’s passage, teachers took a $10,000 cut in take-home pay — $5,000 that they had to start contributing annually to their pensions and $5,000 in new health care contributions.

Between now and June, we need to have heart-to-heart conversations with every UFT member so they understand the dangers ahead and are in a position to make wise, informed decisions when the time comes. Our members need to be armed with the facts about how Janus threatens the rights and benefits we have fought long and hard for over the decades.

The average UFT household saved $1,745 on prescription drugs, dental services and optical services alone during the 2015–16 school year. UFT members weren’t “given” these benefits and services — the UFT negotiated them, along with pay increases and valuable improvements in working conditions. These rights and benefits are no longer secure when union-busting legislation and policies are adopted.

That’s why the UFT has launched a door-knocking campaign and is creating membership teams in every school.

In the door-knocking campaign, members are fanning out across the city to reach out to members after school and on weekends at their homes to explain how Janus will affect their pay and benefits. The same kinds of conversations will be taking place in schools between membership team members and their fellow UFT members.

Here’s the bottom line: Our strength comes from standing together.

In these face-to-face conversations, we will be informing members about Janus in the same way we informed them about the dangers of a New York State constitutional convention.

We’re proud that this union protects our profession, our public schools and ourselves. We believe all workers should have premium-free health insurance and defined-benefit pensions.

Kohlhaas, who will be my guest at the February Delegate Assembly, recently asked me if I was concerned that we now have a big target on our back. I told her I trust the UFT members to keep the union strong once they have the facts.

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