Dana Milbank: Reports of the labor movement’s death were greatly exaggerated

Striking Los Angeles Unified District teachers are joined by parents and students in front of Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. A tentative deal was reached Tuesday between Los Angeles school officials and the teachers union that will allow educators to return to classrooms after a six-day strike against the nation's second-largest district, officials said. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.

When Justice Samuel Alito and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus vs. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst. The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.

Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus — more than offsetting the 84,000 “agency fee payers” it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling. And the union has had a burst of energy. There has been a surge of high-profile strikes by teachers' unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Rallies, pickets and local campaigns mushroomed by the hundreds. The union has tallied 11 organizing wins since Janus, tripled its “member engagement” budget from 2014 and nearly doubled the number of voters it contacted in 2018.

"Alito put his thumb on the scales of justice for the anti-union ideologues," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "It was a wake-up call to everyone. Everybody got engaged."

Labor leaders ought to thank Alito — and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case. Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump's hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.

Unions had become ossified, serving as member-service organizations that offered workplace representation and collective-bargaining assistance but not much fire. Now, the existential threat posed by Janus hasn't materialized — membership has held steady — and, instead, has spurred a renewal of activism.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees feared it could lose 30 percent of its revenue. Instead, the AFSCME reports that for every free rider opting out since Janus, it has gained seven new members. It has continued to notch organizing wins (220 since July 2016, resulting in more than 22,000 newly organized members). It has also trained more than 25,000 activists over the past three years to spread the union gospel.

Back in February when the case was argued, I suggested the justices beware the unintended consequences of their actions, lest they revive labor militancy. Alito expressed no such worry. In his scornful majority opinion that jettisoned decades of precedent, he dismissed the "loss of payments" that would be "unpleasant" for unions.

Now, in the wake of Janus, we see that there wasn't as much anti-union sentiment in the workforce as right-wing groups supposed. Many of the "agency-fee payers," the ones whose free speech was allegedly compromised because they were "forced to subsidize a union," as Alito put it, have become full members of unions instead of quitting. AFSCME reports that 310,000 former agency fee payers have converted to full membership since 2014. (The anti-union plaintiff in the AFSCME case, Mark Janus, who before the ruling said "I love my job," quit his state-government job right after the decision and joined a conservative think tank.)

Rank-and-file members, meanwhile, perceiving the threat to the union, have become more aggressive in recruitment. Workplace units have organically launched everything from social media campaigns and town-hall meetings to civil disobedience and full-blown strikes. And union bosses redirected resources from member services toward organizing, engagement and high-impact community campaigns.

The overall result: Instead of the feared 30 percent drop in membership, public-sector unions held their own in 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week. There was a total decline of just 83,000, or 0.7 percent.

Labor is still a long way from healthy, and more legal threats could blunt the renewed momentum. Lawsuits attempting to force unions to refund agency-fee payers retroactively could be ruinous. But the renewed energy following Janus points the way forward for labor: Success is to be found not in reinvention but in returning to its combative origins.

"The Koch brothers and their team ... expected us to hide under the bed," Lily Eskelen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, tells me. Instead, "we stood up on soapboxes and stages and painted picket signs."

The NEA had projected a loss of as many as 200,000 members, based on previous drop-membership campaigns. Instead, the 3 million-member union is actually up 13,935 members year over year — and the increase in membership among new teachers is particularly encouraging.

Credit the Kochs, and Alito, for that.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics.

Twitter, @Milbank