December 01, 2017

Saving the union, one conversation at a time

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications

Dave Michalak has been busy handing out cards, but they are not holiday greetings.

They are union cards asking colleagues to confirm their membership in the SUNY Broome Faculty Association in case the Supreme Court rules against the labor movement and working families.

When the Supreme Court agreed in September to take the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31which could outlaw “fair share” (or agency) fees and effectively make the public-sector “right to work” — Michalak ramped up his work as union president.

He is just one example of the many NYSUT local union officers and leaders who are devoting themselves to saving their unions in the event the right-wing-sponsored case goes against unions. The life of unions and those of the working middle-class are at stake in an environment that is increasingly, openly favoring the rich and threatening the rights of laborers.

Dave MichalakMichalak (pictured at right), who teaches math at Broome County Community College, and fellow local leaders have been talking with colleagues in this higher education union about the importance of remaining in the union — and supporting it with their dues — should the court uphold Janus. A news blitz will begin in the faculty association’s December newsletter, and the organizing committee is sending a toolkit of information to all campus representatives of the local.

The association adopted an organizing model to its work about three years ago, Michalak explained, “So the framework was in place to take on the card-signing project.” Union representatives are each responsible for about 15 members to approach and have one-on-one conversations about the value of being in a union. Then they are asked to sign a card committing to their union membership.

“We have just established a timeline for the reps to report their progress with the goal of having all cards signed by mid-April,” he said. “Since the majority of (current) agency-fee payers are from the adjunct faculty, they will be contacted about becoming members. The full-time faculty will be working with our adjunct faculty reps as needed to canvas the entire faculty, which totals about 500.”

Michalak said he understands a percentage of faculty may not wish to join the union even under the Janus decision; people who are likely already agency-fee payers. “Our approach is to concentrate on the faculty who may have questions and/or are hesitant to join and, hopefully, convey all of the benefits they enjoy under the contract.”

Some fair-share fee payers are opposed to unions; some, however, do not even realize they are not members. Fair-share payers do not pay union dues but, instead, pay a smaller fee based on their fair share of enjoying the benefits and contract negotiations made on their behalf.

When asked what his fellow faculty and staff members question him about, Michalak said: “The most important questions center around the consequences associated with losing our union and all of our bargaining agreement protections. Our academic freedom, due-process rights, tenure and health benefits are their primary concern.”

Michalak, who has been president of the SBFA for 11 years, knows the campus culture well from 39 years of teaching there. Currently, he is a math lab coordinator and learning specialist. He stands firm in his support of unions and shares that passion with colleagues.

“In my opinion, the unions are the last bastion of hope for all workers in this country. In the corporate world, profit is the priority, whereas providing a living wage and affordable health care are not. Without bargaining agreements, there is only good will from employers — which I would not want to depend on,” he said.

The Janus case, backed by conservative organizations such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the right-wing Liberty Justice Center, could blow up unions and the middle class by allowing workers to opt out of the union — while receiving the benefits negotiated by the union. This would mean unions have fewer resources to support itself and its members.

Many NYSUT local unions are forging a path similar to that of the SBFA, hunkering down to talk the talks. NYSUT is ramping up its efforts to help with this mission. Labor relations specialists, members of the Professional Staff Association, are already in the thick of this current campaign, working with local presidents from around the state and providing information and other support from NYSUT.

By agreeing to hear the case, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said, “The U.S. Supreme Court is acceding to the policy goals of corporate CEOs, the wealthiest 1 percent and political extremists who have been funding these attacks on ordinary working people for decades.”

Pallotta said the Janus case is actually set up to take away the freedom of working people to join unions and speak up for themselves on the job.

“New Yorkers, fortunately, have in their DNA an understanding of the critical role that unions play in growing and protecting the middle class, and providing real economic security for families. NYSUT members see the value of being part of a powerful union — one that gives them a seat at the table and a strong voice in Albany to help them fight for competitive salaries and benefits, protect their retirements and defend their professions,” he said.

The Janus case was preceded by the similar Friedrichs, which ended in a tie after Supreme Court Justice Antonia Scalia died. Michalak said the SBFA mounted a membership card-signing campaign during the Friedrichs debate, under the leadership of member Suzanne Shepherd, chair of the organizing committee.

“It was very successful. We are now taking a similar approach for Janus,” said Michalak, who worked two years as an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering technology department, coached the college’s baseball team for 20 years, the ice hockey team for eight seasons and was assistant coach for the softball team for two years.

As president, he said, “Every issue related to terms and conditions of employment, evaluation, promotion, and benefit questions are dealt with on a daily basis.” Unions also mind working conditions — including health and safety matters — and take part in social justice campaigns and solidarity actions with other unions.

“Working with the college administration on labor-management issues is also a priority and has helped to maintain a collaborative campus situation,” Michalak said.

Under a system upheld by the Supreme Court in 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, unions currently can collect fees from workers in a bargaining unit but they must be used to pay for costs related to collective-bargaining work, not for political or ideological activities.