Editor’s note: This open letter is by Ben Johnson, former president of the Vermont American Federation of Teachers and Vermont AFL-CIO.
As a former president of the Vermont AFL-CIO I worked with dozens of different unions in industries across the state. Unions were born from our forbears’ desire to improve conditions for everyone.
For over ten years I was a union activist, starting as most do, in my local union. I’ve been on bargaining teams, worked as chapter president, treasurer, state federation president, and worked on numerous campaigns. One thing I have observed is that human institutions tend to reflect basic human drives, like self-preservation. Over time, many of the very elements that unions fought for turned out to be poison pills, weakening them from the inside.
One of these is the right to collect mandatory fees from non-members. The notion behind it seems fair enough at first glance: Unions have to cover and represent these non-members, so if they can’t be made to pay for the services, masses of members would defect and leave the union penniless and powerless. In practice, though, this ability just insulated union leaders from the preferences of their own members, and actually created an incentive to be less communicative with members – the union gets most of the revenue anyway, and the fewer members know what the union is up to, the less demanding it is to run. This is simply self-preservation, union leaders maximizing their return on their investment of time and effort.
So last year when the US Supreme Court ruled in its Janus decision that public sector unions could no longer collect those fees, some thought that members would immediately flee the union. My own guess was that most would not, because they’ve become used to paying dues, and they would not want to give up the right to vote and participate in the union.
But the Janus decision gives union members a reason to reflect on their membership. Now you have the option of withdrawing from the union and paying no fees (which used to be up to 85% of full dues), transferring economic pressure from you to the union.
If the union is doing as you think it should, then continue on. If you are not happy with your union, then one choice is to get involved, learn how it all works, and give it your time and effort.
Another choice is to drop your membership and see how the organizations respond to the pressure of losing your dues. You’re still covered by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and the union will still represent you. You still have the full rights of seniority and tenure that anyone has under the contract, but the union will have to show that they really do need your dues to function. That will only push them in the direction of greater responsiveness.
Unions may become radically more responsive and reflective of all their members, or they may double down on how they did things before. In either case, the Janus decision has certainly pointed unions themselves toward soul-searching. There is no reason that members shouldn’t do the same. So, take a few minutes and ask yourself how you feel about the organization that represents you, and you’ll be happier with whichever path you choose.