Union Seeks New Members Ahead of High Court Ruling on Fees

By Louis C. LaBrecque

A union that represents government employees is pushing to boost membership rates to prepare for the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in a case over the right of public-sector workers to refuse to pay union fees.

“The decision could stop agency fees immediately” if the court rules against the union, Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, told Bloomberg Law June 11.

Shearon was referring to the fees unions collect from nonmembers to defray representation costs. Public-sector unions are expected to take a financial hit if the court sides with the worker in the case, Janus v. AFSCME, by declaring the fees unconstitutional.

That worker, Mark Janus, is a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents workers there. Janus disagrees with some of the union’s bargaining positions, and he alleges his free-speech rights are violated by having to pay agency fees even though he isn’t a union member.

The IFPTE represents about 80,000 public- and private-sector workers in the U.S. and Canada, including employees of federal, state, and local governments.

Local Attains 91 Percent Membership

An IFPTE local that represents about 11,000 mostly city and county workers in the San Francisco Bay Area is showing what’s possible, Shearon said. That local recently reached 91 percent membership, meaning that more than nine out of 10 employees represented by the local are union members, he said.

The membership percentage for Local 21 was “in the low 80s” before it took steps to increase the number of members, Debra Grabelle, executive director of the local, told Bloomberg Law.

The local not only asked nonmembers to join the union but also approached current members to ensure they are committed to remaining union members, Grabelle said.

“We had member-to-member conversations about maintaining their memberships,” she said.

“A lot of people want to make this about membership,” she said of the conversations ahead of Janus. “It’s not just about that. It’s about health care, pensions, and keeping our services public.”

The union is referencing the Janus case in its conversations with bargaining unit members, Grabelle said.

“If every one of us makes the choice to contribute in different ways, we as IFPTE Local 21 can come out the other side of this historical moment stronger than Janus,” Grabelle said in a posting on the union’s website. “I believe in our union, and I believe that we have the strength and will to win,” she wrote.

‘Desperate for Inoculation’?

The Freedom Foundation, which is involved in litigation that alleges nonunion public employees shouldn’t have to pay agency fees, has a different take on the IFPTE’s preparations.

“They are desperate for inoculation from the Janus decision,” Brian Minnich, the foundation’s executive vice president, told Bloomberg Law June 11.

“They make it hard for people to leave the union,” Minnich said. “We’re doing our best to educate government union members” about their rights to stop being members, he said.

The group is active in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Strategy Meetings

The leaders of other IFPTE locals recently joined Shearon and others in San Francisco for a presentation from Local 21 to discuss its strategy, Shearon said.

Leaders of two IFPTE locals that represent workers in New Jersey were among the attendees, he said. Local 195 represents “mostly state employees,” along with some municipal and university employees. Local 196 represents New Jersey Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway toll workers and maintenance employees, he said.

Leaders of the IFPTE locals that represent federal employees at NASA and the Tennessee Valley Authority also attended, Shearon said.

The Supreme Court could rule on Janus as early as June 14, when the justices are next expected to release opinions. The court’s term is scheduled to end June 25 but could be extended past that date.

Shearon is running to be the IFPTE’s next president in an election that will be decided during the union’s convention June 25-28 in Atlantic City. Greg Junemann, the union’s president since March 2001, isn’t seeking re-election.

“We will be meeting at our convention” again to discuss strategies for boosting the number of dues-paying IFPTE members, Shearon said. The union by then will most likely “have the results of the Janus decision,” he said.