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On Labor Day, unions worry about workers' future under Trump

Unions, in Philly and elsewhere, typically seek to organize non-union workers. But this summer, leading into Labor Day, they're targeting a new group: their members. Why? There's a government child support specialist in Illinois who doesn't want to pay union fees - and the U.S. Supreme Court may feel his pain.

Philadelphia International Airport workers, part of the 32BJ labor union, marched outside of Terminal B/C to demand a contract with American Airlines subcontractors PrimeFlight and Prospect, at PHL International in July.
Philadelphia International Airport workers, part of the 32BJ labor union, marched outside of Terminal B/C to demand a contract with American Airlines subcontractors PrimeFlight and Prospect, at PHL International in July.Read moreSEIU

It was bound to be a busy August day when Philadelphia's unionized school bus drivers gathered at the district's Passyunk Avenue garage to bid for their routes. Lots of buses, hundreds of drivers, tons of commotion and fun, too, as people reconnected after a long summer. No heavy lifting there.

Not this year.

"We've been talking a lot to our members about the changes occurring in the labor movement,"  said Ernie Bennett, district leader of the Service Employees International Union Local 1201, speaking at a union officers' meeting a week before the bus bidding to discuss communication strategies.

"Folks are information-hungry," said SEIU field representative Mackenzie Permint. "They want to know how they can learn more."

There's a lot to learn. In the months since Donald Trump took office, much is changing for America's workers, union or not. These include delays or rollbacks in safety regulations and in new rules to expand overtime eligibility; cuts in worker training and in the budgets of federal agencies that investigate wage theft; and pending bills in Congress that would make it harder to unionize.

A landmark Supreme Court case looms that could eviscerate the finances of public employee unions, which explains why Bennett and Permint had to be doing more than shaking hands at the bus bidding event. And why Fred Wright, who leads AFSCME District 47, which represents 3,500 Philadelphia white-collar workers, said, "We're trying to speak to all our members, one on one."

On Sept. 25, the Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case of child-support specialist Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee, who sued AFSCME, saying his First Amendment right to free speech is violated because, to stay employed, he must pay union fees even if he doesn't agree with the union.

Janus isn't a union member but is still required to pay an agency fee, covering costs unions incur for bargaining and grievances. If the court takes the case and rules in Janus' favor, as seems likely, public-sector unions, which have been the strongest part of the U.S. labor movement, will find themselves financially weakened.

An internal memo from SEIU's national president, Mary Kay Henry, says the union's administration staff "must plan for a 30 percent reduction" in its budget by Jan. 1, 2018, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. She also said that SEIU won't stop its push to raise wages and unionize fast-food and airport workers. Indeed, the union is planning to spend up to $100 million over the next 14 months to elect politicians friendly to labor on such issues as a higher minimum wage and broader access to health care. The SEIU's push will focus on the Midwest, including Pennsylvania.

The last Supreme Court case, making arguments similar to the Janus case, involved a California schoolteacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, and ended in a 4-4 tie in June 2016, four months after Justice Antonin Scalia's death. Since then, Trump's Supreme Court choice, Neil Gorsuch, has been sworn in.

"I'm pretty worried," Wright said.

Typically, unions spend resources on organizing nonunion workers, making the case that they'll get better benefits and wages if they bargain as a group with a union. But this summer, the organization has been focused on its own members, making the same arguments. Wright, for example, held a training meeting in June for 50 activists on talking points related to the Janus case. He plans another training in October.

Wright says District 47 has been good at making the case for full dues-paying membership, telling employees that they're already paying an agency fee and for a little more they can have a say in union governance and collective bargaining. The vast majority are paying full freight, he said. But it could be different if employees find they can get representation without paying anything.

Exactly, says Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is supporting the Janus case and a similar suit in Pennsylvania involving three teachers.

"They're going to have to go out and sell their product to workers and if they do it, they'll be strong and if they don't, it'll be, 'What you have done for me lately?' " he said. "I think many workers will decide that their [union dues] are just not worth it."

Public-sector unions have been a source of stability even as union membership has fallen to 14.6 million with 10.7 percent of workers as members, down from 17.7 million members, or 20.1 percent, in 1983. Half of the nation's union members work for the public sector, with one in three public-sector employees, or 34.4 percent, represented by unions. By contrast, only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

The Janus case, District 47's Wright says, isn't about some aspect of constitutional law. "It's about power and capitalism," he said. "They don't want workers to have a voice."

Here are some other changes:

Joint employer: In the gig and independent contract worker economy, who is responsible when temps are hurt on the job or improperly paid? Is it the staffing agency, the "independent contractor," or the company? In informal guidance, the Obama Department of Labor found that most independent contractors were actually employees, making the company responsible. That guidance has been rescinded, putting the burden back on the individual.

OSHA: The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration faces a cut from $552 million to $531 million. "There are all kinds of new hazards and the OSHA regulatory [process] is already extremely slow and extremely burdensome," said Jordan Barab, OSHA deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration. "It takes seven to 10 years to issue any new standards and with [Trump's mandate of] two regulations out for every new one, this administration has effectively stopped rule-making. OSHA won't be issuing any standards. Instead, the agency's energies seem to be geared to rolling back standards."

National Labor Relations Board: NLRB decisions tend to fluctuate with each administration. Trump's two nominees to the five-member board are known to be more pro-management. Confirmed by the Senate, Marvin Kaplan drew praise from industry groups, but criticism from unions for his role as a staffer on the House Labor Committee who helped organize hearings attacking NLRB rules to speed up elections. Unions say faster elections are necessary to overcome employer intimidation. Management calls them ambush elections designed to circumvent companies' abilities to talk to their employees about the issue. William Emanuel, the other nominee, as yet unconfirmed, is a management-side lawyer with Littler Mendelson, a national firm often tapped by companies to prevent unionization.

Susan Harwood: A small, $10 million program, these grants for teaching workers safety will end next year, under the current budget. In Philadelphia, Harwood grants to the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) funded teenage trainers who talked to young workers about safety at their first jobs and bilingual trainers who went to Home Depot parking lots and taught the basics of fall protection and trench safety to construction laborers hired by the day. "If there are 40 people in a class and one gets it, it's worth it," said trainer Damon Walker, who used to work full time at PhilaPOSH  but had to get different work because of uncertain funding.

Beryllium: New OSHA standards to protect workers from cancer and chronic beryllium disease, were delayed from January until May, and are now partially under review for the construction and maritime industries. The levels are not under review, but related activities are, such as medical monitoring and workplace exposure measurements.

Silica: After more than a decade of review, enforcement of new OSHA standards for silica, which has been linked to cancer and lung disease, is set to start in September, delayed from June, but industry groups are asking OSHA for an additional stay.

Injury reporting: OSHA had required employers to report injury and illness data starting in July, but that has been delayed until December. OSHA said it intends to revise some provisions of the rule.

Persuader/NLRB:  The Obama administration put in place new rules requiring companies to file how much they paid union-avoidance consultants, known as persuaders. That regulation was blocked in court and the Department of Labor filed a motion this summer, saying it intended to rescind the rule. Meanwhile, Congress is looking to reverse new procedures for faster NLRB union elections.