Communications Workers prep for Supreme Court loss
Communications Workers of America

PITTSBURGH (PAI)—The decision may not come down until next June, but the Communications Workers are already preparing for a hostile U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will make every state and local public worker nationwide a potential “free rider.”

That’s because CWA—and other unions with large contingents of public workers, including the Service Employees and AFSCME—expect the five white male Republican Supreme Court justices to overturn a 43-year-old precedent that lets state governments decide whether unions can collect “fair share fees” from workers who are not members, the “free riders.”

And that decision, in Jacobs v AFSCME, a case from Illinois, will in turn harm unions by cutting off their money, and their ability to bargain contracts for—and defend on the job—a state and local workforce that is heavily minority and majority female.

In an exclusive interview with Press Associates Union News Service, Brooks Sunkett, CWA’s vice president for its public sector workers—including almost 60,000 workers in New Jersey, 12,000 in Texas and tens of thousands elsewhere—said CWA will develop a task force and specialized training to energize its members to sign up, or re-sign up, public workers.

“It’ll be a different training every place, and we’ll be targeting individuals” who are already disposed to be activists and then have them undergo an intensive two-day program.

The training will be modeled on the combined organizing-plus-politics 2-day “boot camp” CWA successfully used to fire up members and convince people to hit the streets to elect Chokwe Lumumba as the new progressive mayor of Jackson, Miss., earlier this year.

It will not only train unionists to sign up non-union workers in CWA-represented shops – the “free riders” who now, in non-right-to-work states, pay fees to cover negotiations and grievances, but no more—but also make the linkage obvious between organizing and politics on the state and local level, he added.  “You have to educate people on that,” Sunkett added.

CWA made that linkage in Jackson. Dozens of unionists worked more than 100 volunteer shifts for Lumumba after the union became the first to back his bid. CWA’s local represents more than 7,000 city workers.

While Lumumba’s first, losing, mayoral race three years ago didn’t involve the union, this one did. Workers realized how a progressive mayor could make a major difference in their lives. After he won, Lumumba ended an unpaid furlough of city workers, raised their pay from $10 an hour—it was frozen for four years—and improved job conditions.

Brooks Sunkett | LaborNet

“Politics and organizing work hand-in-hand,” Sunkett says—a point that sometimes escapes union officials at the regional and local levels. “We gotta put a fire under our districts sometimes, and make them understand this is a priority. You need hundreds, if not thousands, of people doing that. Had we not done that in Jackson, Lumumba wouldn’t have won.”

And if CWA and other unions don’t do that after the coming High Court ruling, he warns, the union—and the labor movement—will face tough times, at best. CWA President Chris Shelton warns that the aim of the right wing and business forces pushing the High Court case is to make the U.S. union-free.

Private sector union density is 6.4 percent, federal data calculate, and that’s the lowest level, Shelton noted, since 1910. By contrast, 34.4 percent of public workers are unionized.

So the radical right—including the anti-worker so-called National Right to Work Committee, which is funding the High Court case—big business and their political allies have now set their sights on destroying public worker unions, too. Success would remove the last resistance to their corporate agenda.

The education and training of union members to organize and re-organize public sector workers nationwide comes on top of many battles unions face in various states, most of them Republican-run. In the wide-ranging review, Sunkett said some top ones include:

  • New Jersey. CWA led a large union coalition that forced the legislature, over the opposition of GOP Gov. Chris Christie and State Senate President John Sweeney (D) to cut $300 million from the state’s Blue Cross Blue Shield’s reserve funds to pay for public worker pension shortfalls.

Christie previously promised the money would be forthcoming, then reneged. The unions successfully lobbied lawmakers to ensure state and local workers got their pension funding and the health insurer stayed whole for all New Jerseyans.

  • Texas. The deeply conservative Texas state senate passed legislation stripping public worker unions in the Lone Star State—who can only “consult” with state and local officials, not collectively bargain—of their right to a dues checkoff. Sunkett said CWA pushed checkoff through 13 years ago. CWA lobbying convinced the GOP Texas House Speaker, after objections from his own caucus, to pigeonhole the measure for the next two years.
  • Iowa. AFSCME and CWA went to court to fight the GOP-run legislature’s and governors’ laws that virtually stripped bargaining rights from Iowa state and local public workers. Those cases are still pending, but past interviews with AFSCME leaders show the unions are not optimistic about winning.

“Going to court is after the fact. It’s like trying to build a house from the top down,” Sunkett says.

Iowa’s anti-union moves had one other effect: They got the Service Employees’ Iowan nurses local president, Cathy Glasson, so pissed-off that she’s thrown her hat into the 2018 governors’ race.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.