Steps You Can Take to Bolster Unions After Janus

An SEIU protest in 2009. Source: Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Many progressives are rightfully worried about the consequences of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which enables workers to gain the wages and benefits collectively bargained by unions without contributing dues. It is a public-sector version of “right to work” laws that are in force in 28 states.

But we can do things to reinforce the union movement. We can do a lot more than merely say that we are working hard to protect workers and that we stand with union members. We could actually join a union!

Some workers may say that they don’t need a union, that their organizations have excellent working conditions and enable staff input and decision-making on compensation and job descriptions. But the reality is that they remain at the complete mercy of their organizations’ management team. Management changes its mind, and a lot of formal and informal work agreements can go out the window.

Washington is an at-will employment state. This means that an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason, without just cause and without warning, as long as the reason is not discriminatory based on protected class status. A union can protect against that. Union members negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that lays down the parameters for workers’ rights, benefits, and wages. The agreement can also address racial and gender equity and work culture.

In our state there are plenty of unions that would be happy to help organize your workplaces. Just call the Washington State Labor Council, the Teamsters, or any number of local unions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a name that reflects its founding for elevator operators and window washers. Now, like many other unions, they cover a lot of other workers, including those in health care, government, and food service. Workers at our sister progressive policy institute, the Economic Policy Institute, are in the International Union of Professional and Technical Employees, along with the Boeing Engineers.

I must make a disclosure here: the staff at the Economic Opportunity Institute have not decided to organize into a union. But I am a union member! Organizations’ leaders and managers can join unions. While leaders can’t really collectively bargain with themselves, they can become associate members of unions of their choice, showing solidarity with their own dues. Recently I joined SEIU 925 in connection with my position on the clinical faculty of the UW School of Public Health. Other possibilities are Working America which enables workers who don’t have a union at their place of work, or are exempt from those collective bargaining units, to join and show their personal support and solidarity. SEIU has associate members. The Washington State Labor Council can also connect you with associate memberships in several unions.

Those of us who don’t pay dues, whether we are in a union or not, are all free riders. It is the union movement that brought us child labor laws and collective bargaining, which built the middle class. More recently it is the union movement in our state that was the engine for our good minimum wage, our state law requiring paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave, to name a few progressive steps forward. Paying dues is both paying back for past progress and paying forward for our future and that of our children and grandchildren. It is how we can show true solidarity.

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