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Reassessing Organized Labor's Political Power After Supreme Court Ruling


This week, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to labor unions that represent public sector workers all across the country. In the case Janus v. AFSCME, the court says government workers are not required to pay any union dues or fees at all - none. That's even though they are still covered by union-negotiated contracts. This ruling will certainly impact labor's political clout. NPR's Don Gonyea has the story.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Among those celebrating the Janus ruling from the Supreme Court is Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-funded group that's been part of a major national effort to enact laws limiting labor's ability to automatically collect dues from workers in union-represented jobs. Here's AFP's Akash Chougule.

AKASH CHOUGULE: If you like your union, you can keep your union. What we're saying and, again, what the court made clear is you simply cannot force workers, against their will, to fund the union.

GONYEA: Now, government employees already had the right to not pay anything to fund the union's political activity. But they were required to pay to the union something to cover costs of negotiating contracts that benefited all workers in their workplace. Under this new ruling, that requirement is gone. No contribution to the union is required whatsoever for government workers nationwide. Harley Shaiken is a labor analyst at the University of California, Berkeley.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: The Janus ruling is meant to weaken unions, and it will likely do just that.

GONYEA: Shaiken says it's hard to measure exactly what the impact will be for any given union. But employees who really don't want a union can now get more money in their paycheck. But it could also tempt workers who are simply ambivalent about the union to stop paying any dues or fees. The potential cost is millions of dollars for a big public sector union like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Lee Saunders is AFSCME's president.

LEE SAUNDERS: You know, it's hard to take. I mean, we're going to have to make some adjustments. But this is an opportunity for us.

GONYEA: He says the court gave indications in an earlier case three years ago that this is the direction it would go with this case. So Saunders says they'd already been adapting to the new world, which officially arrived this week. He says they've greatly improved outreach to workers about what the union does for them. He says there's more personal contact, which includes lots of listening on the union's part.

SAUNDERS: We kind of took that for granted, the importance of communication - the importance of individual communication.

GONYEA: He adds that massive protests and strikes that have led to pay hikes for teachers in places like West Virginia and Oklahoma are also an indication that labor activism is still very much alive, regardless of unfavorable court cases. And there's evidence that unions that can make the case to workers that they're delivering value can limit the dues defections allowed under law. Harley Shaiken points to Nevada. It's a so-called right-to-work state where paying zero dues is already allowed for private sector workers in union shops. The Culinary Workers Union there has remained a force in organizing and in politics.

SHAIKEN: The largest union in the state, the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas, has 57,000 members. None of them have to pay union dues, yet 95 percent of these 57,000 workers pay union dues. Why? Because they see the effectiveness in their daily life.

GONYEA: That may be a best-case scenario. Other unions around the country are now challenged to find their own version of that model. This all comes as labor leaders pledge to be more active than ever in the 2018 and 2020 elections, where they'll find very well-funded adversaries.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.