MN’s public-sector unions aren’t mourning Janus, they’re organizing

Early on a Wednesday morning last month, about two dozen St. Paul water department employees trudged into a small conference room for a meeting with their union representatives. After listening to a quick pitch, the workers signed new membership cards, shook hands with their reps and punched in for the day.

Even by union standards, it was an entirely unglamorous scene. There were no bullhorns, no banners, no picket signs – not even coffee or donuts.

But the meeting – and hundreds like it that have played out at schools, courthouses and other public-sector worksites across the state in recent months – was one small part of a historic organizing campaign to make sure people keep a strong voice on the job in the wake of today’s Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

As expected, the court’s conservative majority sided with corporations and wealthy donors, overturning 40-plus years of precedent to bar public-sector unions from collecting fees from non-members they are legally required to represent.

Already, the decision has prompted a lot of hand-wringing over the continued “downfall” of America’s labor movement.

Don’t buy it.

No judge or politician can take away working people’s freedom to join together and fight for themselves and their communities, and Minnesota’s public-sector unions have set out to prove it. In anticipation of the Janus decision, unions have taken on the work of strengthening and re-energizing their organizations from the inside out.

The response has been overwhelming. Laborers Local 363, which represents St. Paul water department workers and roughly 1,100 municipal and county workers statewide, has collected more than 600 signed cards already this year. Roughly a quarter of those, organizers say, are from workers who previously were not paying full dues.

“If you were on the fence about your union dues before, now’s the time to decide,” said Local 363 member Caitlin Brunette, a maintenance and grounds worker at Phalen Park.

Brunette, 26, has been an active volunteer in Local 363’s internal organizing drive, traveling to worksites to talk face to face with fellow members about the threat Janus v. AFSCME poses to their collective bargaining power. Her pitch?

“I’m pretty sure you like being able to go on vacation, get overtime and all these other things we take for granted,” she said. “We have a lot to lose, and I don’t want to see what would happen if we weren’t represented by Local 363.”

Brunette has been “pleasantly surprised” by the response of her fellow members.

“People listen, and it seems like no matter what their feelings on unions are – and we do have people with mixed feelings – the majority are on board,” she said. “I think whether or not they really are pro-union or not, they realize how good they have it and they get on board. They join.”

But Janus won’t be the last corporate attack public-sector union members face.

Laborers locals in parts of the country that have gone right to work in recent years – Wisconsin, most notably – have seen anti-union groups file legal challenges forcing unions to prove they have signed up a majority of workers in a bargaining unit. Or they will send out door-to-door canvassers to meet with union members and urge them to drop out.

That’s why so many are putting an emphasis on collecting newly signed membership cards from all workers they represent, Local 363 reps Tom Fox and Gary Reed said.

“If you don’t think I’m serious, go ask the public-sector Laborers local in Milwaukee how it’s doing,” Reed told water department workers. “You can’t. It’s not there anymore.”

This article is reprinted from the St. Paul Union Advocate.