open shop america

Two years ago Tennessee’s billionaire governor Bill Haslam, then the richest elected politician in the country (now it’s Trump), quietly initiated the largest and most radical restructuring of public services in the state’s history.

His plan was designed in secret and written as an executive action, deliberately excluding legislators and the public. It would outsource every one of the state’s thousands of facilities management and service jobs—at campuses, parks, even armories—every custodian, maintenance worker, electrician, plumber, painter, and groundskeeper.

The whole public sector will likely become “right to work” next year, barring another miracle at the Supreme Court.

Once the conservative majority rules in Janus v. AFSCME, likely before June, life will change for unions in the 23 states that till now have rejected right-to-work laws. Public sector unions in those states will no longer be able to collect “agency fees” from workers whom they represent but who choose not to join their locals.

As right-to-work laws proliferate, it's worth remembering that they originated as a means to maintain Jim Crow labor relations in the South and to beat back what was seen as a Jewish conspiracy.

The final two decades of the 19th century, beginning with the great strike wave of 1877, and the first two decades of the 20th century were a period of intense class combat in the United States.

Postal unions, like all federal employee unions, are open shop. That means workers can get the benefits of union representation while opting out of paying dues.

Yet the postal unions generally maintain high rates of voluntary union membership—and Letter Carriers Branch 82 in Portland, Oregon, does even better than most. From 90 percent membership five years ago, it has “slowly up-ticked,” says Organizing Chair Willie Groshell, to around 95 percent of the 1,200 represented carriers.

At Labor Notes trainings I hear lots of reasons why union members think their co-workers aren’t involved: They don’t understand labor history. They don’t appreciate all the union has done for them. They watch Fox News. They’re scared or apathetic.

Labor history, it’s vital to remember, is still being made. The people hired today will shape our movement’s future. That’s one reason why it’s so important for unions to connect with new hires as soon as possible.

Going into its latest contract, the transit union in Fairfax County, Virginia, was in tough shape. People weren’t active because they didn’t believe the union could do much—and the union couldn’t do much because people weren’t active. But after a robust union campaign, in a matter of months the Fairfax Connector went from a unit at risk of decertifying to a strong union shop.

For public-employee unions in Wisconsin, an open shop isn’t even the worst of it. The anti-union Act 10, which Governor Scott Walker forced through in 2011, mandated annual recertification votes and all but eliminated collective bargaining. Some unions gave up on staying certified at all—but not the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. So far its 4,600 members include 69 percent of the district’s teachers and a narrow majority of educational assistants.

“I think the key is get to them as often as you can, early in their career,” says General President Scott Hoffman. At each new-hire orientation, a representative walks new hires through the benefits the union has won. A week later there’s another chance, at the training session for window clerks. “We ask who still hasn’t joined or had anybody talk to them,” Hoffman says. “Try to get as many bites at the apple as you can in the beginning.”

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