PEORIA, Ill. ― The U.S labor movement has a lot riding on workers like Meghan Innis and Joey Grace.
In late July, the two public school teachers were crisscrossing Peoria in Innis’ SUV, working their way through a list of fellow educators. Their task was simple: Talk to the teachers about their schools and their concerns. Let them know about an upcoming contract vote for their union, the Peoria Federation of Teachers. Ask them to re-sign their union cards as a gesture of commitment.
The first door they knocked on was Teresa Harper’s. The librarian and teacher at Peoria High School was in the middle of painting her apartment before the end of summer break.
“Can I just... talk?” she asked.
“Yes!” assured Grace, a high school special education teacher. “That’s the whole idea.”
“One of the huge issues at our school is discipline,” Harper said, beginning what became a nearly hourlong conversation. “I think the rules for discipline [for students] need to be clearer.”
Not long ago, an unsolicited home visit from union representatives would have been unheard of here. But the Peoria Federation of Teachers is trying to do things differently now. The open-ended talk in Harper’s dining room is just the type of outreach unions are doing after the Supreme Court recently dealt them a severe blow that could reduce membership.
In a landmark decision, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the court ruled that government workers cannot be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them. The decision gives millions of public employees the option to drop their support for unions that, under the law, must still continue to bargain on those employees’ behalf.
Faced with the threat of lost members and funding, the most forward-looking unions are now changing how they operate, in potentially transformative ways.
What’s happening in Peoria is an experiment of the local’s parent union, the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. The goal is to steer away from a top-down model of unionism, in which teachers view the union primarily as an insurance policy when trouble pops up. Instead, they want to achieve a bottom-up organizing model in which members are deeply involved in the union and setting its agenda.
Doing so, they believe, will help retain membership and make the union a more effective advocate for teachers and the education policies they want to see.
“We offer extremely good services for our members, but we realized if we don’t shift to an organizing model, we might get decimated,” said Jeff Adkins-Dutro, a Peoria English teacher who also serves as the local union president. “In my opinion, this is really going to strengthen our union.”
The transition requires a change in thinking and a lot of legwork. That’s why teachers like Innis and Grace gave up some of their summer break, taking part in an internship program organized by unions and a community group. They sat through seminars run at their local union hall across from the Illinois River, then hit the pavement to speak with teachers about school funding and whatever else they had on their minds.
They also urged their fellow teachers to sign “recommitment” cards, pledging to stick with their union even if the Supreme Court decision gave them a financial incentive to cut ties.
“The Janus decision, for me, just solidified me getting active in my union,” said Grace, 33, who is in his third year of teaching middle school. “I think we’re at the point where we’ll need a whole new labor movement, or the [economic] disparity will just become too great.”
The share of private-sector workers who belong to a labor union has been falling for decades. The membership rate is now flirting with a historic low, at just 6.5 percent. Unions have fared much better in the public sector, where the membership rate is a robust 34 percent. Local governments typically don’t fight union campaigns with the same vehemence of corporations, which has made it easier to organize the likes of teachers, sanitation workers, corrections officers and firefighters.
By hurting unions for government workers, the Janus decision could weaken what has become labor’s spine.
The 5-4 ruling dealt with what are known as “fair share” fees. Under U.S. labor law, unions must represent every worker in a bargaining unit equally. Therefore, unions try to secure contracts that require every worker to pay fees that cover the costs of bargaining and representation. The Janus decision outlawed such arrangements in the public sector on the grounds that the fees amounted to “compelled speech” and violated a worker’s First Amendment rights.
Even before the ruling, no worker could be forced to pay for a union’s political activities. But the Janus decision means no government worker can be forced to pay for even basic representation either, effectively making the entire public sector “right to work.” Unions fear this will lead to what they derisively call “free riding” ― workers opting out of paying union fees while still enjoying the benefits of their contract.
The case had its roots right here in Illinois, where it was originally brought by the state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner. After a judge ruled Rauner did not have standing in the case, a government worker named Mark Janus intervened. A child support specialist in the Illinois health department, Janus had been paying fair share fees to AFSCME against his wishes. (After winning his case, Janus left his government job and took a position with Illinois Policy Institute, the conservative group that funded his case.)
Although the Janus decision directly affects only government workers, it sent the message to private employers that, as far as the judiciary is concerned, it’s open season on unions, said Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University Law School. If public-sector unions are diminished, he noted, it becomes easier to pass laws weakening ones in the private sector as well.
“The last several years have been disastrous for labor,” Secunda said. “The right-to-work expansion is part of a larger strategy led by corporate America to decimate unions for a very simple purpose: It makes it quite easy to expand corporate profits.”
Still, the Janus decision is not all terrible news for organized labor, he said: “The unions that remain standing will be strong unions and will not be pulled down by the weaker ones.”
The Peoria Federation of Teachers began preparing for this decision last year with the help of the much larger and extremely powerful Chicago Teachers Union.
That union had grabbed national headlines when it launched a citywide strike in 2012. Teachers and union staff from Chicago trained the Peoria local on how to mobilize members and students’ parents when necessary. Peoria (population 113,000) is famous as a Midwestern test market, and union leaders hoped the internship program created here would be expanded elsewhere in Illinois.
One of the first to take part was Linda Wilson, a second-grade teacher and mother of five who attended Peoria public schools. Wilson, who is African-American, gained her teaching certification through the state’s “Grow Your Own Teachers” program, which aims to staff lower-income schools with more diverse candidates. She has since become her union’s political and diversity director.
During these home visits, Wilson realized how much work the union had ahead of it. On a couple of occasions, she caused alarm when she introduced herself to a teacher’s spouse on the doorstep. An unannounced call from a union official seemed so out of the ordinary that they assumed the teacher must be in trouble.
But almost everyone was eager to talk.
“No one from the union had taken the time to really listen and engage before,” Wilson explained.
“There have been people who were kind of shocked the union is here. There are others where you’ve got to back out after two hours” because the conversation won’t end, she said with a laugh.
Wilson was one of just four teachers who gave up her summer to take part in the program in 2017. This year, 19 teachers applied, and the union could only take on seven. They were joined by four other public-sector employees ― home care workers with the Service Employees International Union ― as well as two parents of Peoria students.
The parents were asked to talk to other parents and bring their concerns back to the union. If the union was going to become more than just an interest group for teachers, the thinking went, then it had to do more to bring parents into the fold, too.
During a recent seminar at the union hall, the parent representatives were asked what they thought the union could do to improve schools. One parent said the system was failing her son ― his grades were bad, and he showed behavioral problems, but he kept passing each year anyway. He would soon be in high school and wasn’t prepared.
“He’s not ready,” she said, visibly upset. “He shouldn’t have passed.”
Innis told her many teachers feel the same way, but the school district has become more reluctant to hold students back.
“We agree with you,” Innis said. “We’re setting them up not to be successful in high school. But it’s not the teachers. We all feel your frustration.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, likes to think her union has learned the lessons of Wisconsin. In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Wisconsin Republicans passed Act 10, which repealed collective bargaining rights for most government workers. The public-sector unions were blindsided. Four years later, it was that much easier for state legislators to pass a right-to-work law hurting unions in the private sector.
After Janus, unions can no longer afford to take their members for granted, which is why Weingarten wants to fund programs like the one in Peoria.
“What we’ve tried to do is change our culture,” she said. “What happened for a long time is basically people saw the union as a transaction ― you negotiate a contract, someone would have a problem and come to the union. As opposed to the union being really important in their lives.”
Roughly three-quarters of the AFT’s locals are now running member engagement programs. The union’s affiliates rounded up more than half a million recommitment cards before the Janus decision came down in June. Weingarten hopes that what’s happening in Peoria will be replicated in other, smaller locals throughout the country.
The effort doesn’t come without a cost. The AFT has been steering a portion of dues into a special fund for member engagement since 2016. At least some of those dollars would have otherwise gone to external organizing, to unionize new workplaces and grow the ranks. The Janus decision has forced unions to spend money reaching out to the workers they already represent.
But the price of not doing so could be great. As soon as the Supreme Court issued its ruling, conservative groups began contacting teachers and other public employees to show them how to cut off payments to their unions. Illinois teachers received direct mail and email referring them to websites like leavectu.com, run by the Illinois Policy Institute, which argues that “opting out of the union allows you to keep more of your hard-earned money.”
A union that doesn’t bother putting in the effort could easily lose the information war. But Adkins-Dutro, the president of the Peoria union, said he slept soundly the night before the Janus decision was expected. He was certain the “drop out” campaigns the opposition launched wouldn’t be as effective as the member outreach his union was already doing.
“They’re sending emails,” he said of anti-union groups. “We’re knocking on doors.”
As Innis and Grace made their rounds, the effort seemed to be paying off. At the end of their talk with the librarian Harper, she signed a recommitment card without hesitation. They hopped into Innis’ SUV and checked their list for the next address. With school starting in a little over two weeks, the union had managed to round up recommitment cards from more than 90 percent of its membership. There were less than three dozen left, and Innis and Grace were able to pick up two more that afternoon.
Within days, Peoria teachers approved a new contract with the school district, winning a 3 percent raise for each of the next two years, an improvement over the last deal. The number of teachers who voted on the contract was twice as high as the last time ― a sign, union leaders believe, that their outreach is already getting members more engaged.
But Innis said it wasn’t really about keeping dues-paying members in the fold or winning bigger raises. She pointed to the teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, and why she thought they were ultimately successful.
“It was never about their bottom line,” Innis said of those teachers. “They fought for the schools and their kids, not for themselves.”