Janus + 1: Unions Battle Back a Year Later


Johnnie McDow: HVAC worker, member of the Building Trades,
and graduate of the LA Fed’s Organizing Institute

Originally posted on Capital & Main by Bobbi Murray – click here for the full article.

UNION MEMBER JOHNNIE MCDOW was game to show up at the three-day organizing training at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in May 2018. He just didn’t know what to expect.

He had never heard anything before about organizing. “I’d never even heard that term,” he says.

McDow, 54, is a silver-haired father of four from Santa Clarita. A slight accent and a few colloquialisms hint at his childhood in Tennessee, where his siblings and grandmother still live.

For a while, he was in pre-med at Brigham Young University. McDow says, “I could have been a doctor, but I didn’t enjoy that.” After a private contractor hired him some 35 years ago, he found that work installing and maintaining heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) suited him. McDow got his technical training and liked the pay rate. He later hired on with the Los Angeles Unified School District as an HVAC technician. He then became a member of the union representing workers in LAUSD that maintain heating and cooling​. McDow marveled at the health care, pension and the gradual pay bumps created by a union contract.

When he arrived at the County Fed’s training, he was unaware that it was part of a national union effort bracing for a seismic event that is reshaping the labor landscape. Union federations and locals across the country were in overdrive, training and mobilizing organizers to reach out to public-sector workers and educate them about the benefits of union membership.

It was in preparation for the pending Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. The 5-4 Janus decision, which came down in June 2018, ruled that public-sector workers were no longer required to pay union dues nor “fair share” agency fees that cover collective bargaining for their wages and benefits or services such as arbitration. Union dues account for much of union budgets, but agency fees account for even more.

Janus set up a financial drain that undermines the ability of public-sector unions—about half of U.S. organized labor—to set standards for wages and workplace conditions, since fewer dues-paying members mean less clout in both in the public-policy arena and at the bargaining table.

The impact has been profound. Powerhouse policy advocates like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, National Education Association, the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America are threatened. AFSCME and SEIU suffered a sizable loss of agency fee payers in 2018. (Disclosure: AFSCME and SEIU are financial supporters of Capital & Main.)

The Janus lawsuit was part of a long march by anti-union forces backed by right-wing foundations and political efforts backed by the billionaire Koch brothers in cities and states across America.

“They want to put more money in their pockets and control the political landscape in this country,” McDow says.

After the County Fed training, McDow was on board to organize and boost union membership. He had mobilized people in the past; he just didn’t think it was organizing. “I was doing this long before Janus, as you can see, but what it made us do is it made us go back and refocus our efforts on organizing people. We are union members—and we’re not union members because the union is some white knight on a steed that comes riding in to save us.”

To read the full article on Capital & Main, click here.