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Public unions weather loss of agency fees


Special to Delaware Business Times

In June 2018, the United States Supreme Court, in a case called Janus vs. AFSCME, held that “States
and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from non-consenting employees.”

What that means is that public-sector employees, such as teachers, professional firefighters and government workers at every level, do not have to pay mandatory fees to unions if they choose not to be members.
While proponents of the ruling say it’s a victory for First Amendment rights, representatives of public sector unions have expressed confidence they will persist through the changes.

Since the ruling, representatives from the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA) – the teachers’ union – and the AFSCME Council 81 – the largest public employees union – say they haven’t seen much change in their rolls. In fact, they’ve seen a slight uptick in new members.

DSEA sent out letters this summer to nonmembers saying fees would no longer be collected from their paychecks.

“We actually had people sign up [after they received the letter]. They thought they were members,” said Shelly Meadowcroft, director of public relations and communications for DSEA. The decision mostly affected people who did not want to become members in the first place, she said.

Michael A. Begatto, executive director of Council 81, said his group saw a similar response. When the service-fee payers came off the rolls, some of them signed up as full members.

Out of 7,000 members, about 50 members have opted out. That’s about what Begatto expected, he said.

Many of them were state employees on the lower end of the pay scale, who said they just couldn’t afford paying the $15 a month full dues.

That’s fine with William L. Messenger, one of the attorneys with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which helped argue the issue before the Supreme Court. His group is not opposed to unions, he said, just forced support of union lobbying efforts. “This is a straight First Amendment case,” said Messenger.
“You can’t force people to support political speech.”

Messenger brought his message to Delaware in late September as a guest of the nonprofit think tank, the Caesar Rodney Institute.

“Janus provides a tremendous opportunity for public education reform in Delaware by shaking up the status quo,” said John Stapleford, executive director of the Caesar Rodney Institute. “The DSEA has over the years become complacent, spending more of its members’ dues on advocacy and less on member services. Now the DSEA must market itself.

The union must now “provide a convincing case of the value added to members from its services,” he added. “Ultimately, everyone benefits.”

That is what the unions are doing. Council 81 lists “36 Reasons to Thank a Union,” on their website. Among them: weekends, breaks at work, 8-hour work days and child labor laws.

Council 81 also started a campaign asking their members to recommit to the union and offers training for members to “take back the high ground.”

“We fight hard. We provide services,” said Begatto.

DSEA provides collective bargaining for teacher contracts, but also provides pluses like discount cards and professional insurance protection, said Meadowcroft.

Kristin Galati, a seventh-grade special-education teacher who started working in the Milford School District this school year, says she doesn’t always favor the political role the teachers’ union takes, but she is a staunch supporter of unions and what they provide otherwise.

Some corporations take care of their people, and some don’t, and unions are the equalizing factor, said Galati. She doesn’t like the politics, but said it is a necessary evil for the unions to be effective.

“My values are of the working class people and what they have had to fight for,” said Galati. “Teachers,
they need some backing.”

Kevin Lee, also a teacher in the Milford district, recently withdrew from the union after years of support that included eight years as the vice president of his school association.

When he was faced with a personnel issue, the type he had fought through with other teachers, he said he did not receive support from the union. When he heard about the Janus decision, he decided to, “give himself a raise,” by canceling his membership.

“It should be the choice of the worker whether they want to get involved,” Lee said. “After 20 years
of paying dues, the advocacy was not there.”

His wife recently took a teaching position in the Indian River School District, where she chose to join the union, he said. “I have nothing against the members.”

Under Delaware law, unions can require that a person wishing to leave the union must inform that union within 15 days of their anniversary date of joining.

Begatto doesn’t see that being any problem, even though membership is automatically extended every year. For an employee to terminate membership, he or she must give written notice to the employer and the union, “not less than 10 days and not more than 20 days,” from their anniversary of signing up. Members must fill out a card that explains that and gives the exact date they joined, he said.

Still, the full impact of the decision might take several years to take effect. Most people are still unaware of the decision and its implications, said Messenger. n

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