credit: AP / Jacquelyn Martin
Mark Janus, center, outside the Supreme Court

Backers of the landmark lawsuit that has the potential to substantially diminish the power of public employee unions in California and nationally are not sitting back reveling in the victory they won on the Supreme Court late last month.

The divided ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees upended the four-decade legal precedent allowing unions to levy collective bargaining fees on employees who have chosen not to belong to their union, even though they may benefit from labor contracts bargained on their behalf. They already had the right not to pay any portion of their fees that went to support political campaigns.

Now several conservative organizations with funding sources they decline to disclose are following up with a multi-pronged campaign to persuade large numbers of employees, including a bigger share of California’s teachers and other school and college employees, to stop paying union fees. The campaign in California and elsewhere will involve emails, phone calls, visits to worksites, or even canvasing teachers at their homes.

The organizations have tiny staffs in California, or none at all. But what they lack in people power is offset by a sophisticated digital database that has been years in the making, which allows them to potentially reach every public employee directly, including hundreds of thousands of California teachers and school employees.

In addition to basic contact information about the employees, the database includes more personal information about their political party affiliations and social networks.

At stake is the strength of public sector unions — with a membership rate more than five times higher than in the private sector — along with the possible erosion of local unions’ ability to bargain for better working conditions and wages. Also on the table is whether they will play as significant a role as they have in the past in electoral politics at a local, state and national level.

A day after the Supreme Court ruling, Telly Tse, a special education teacher at Beverly Hills High School, received an emailfrom the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy urging him to drop out of his union. The organization was instrumental in getting Michigan to approve so-called “right to work” legislation in 2012 banning unions from requiring members to pay dues. It is now applying similar tactics that it used there in California. It has launched a campaign, along with a website making it easy for union members to fill out the forms they need to terminate their membership and a national call in number (833-33MYPAY).

As a recent president of his school district’s union, Tse seems like an unlikely target. “I looked at it, and rolled my eyes,” he said of the email. “So far the effort does not appear to have been very effective.”

But with nearly 1.4 million public sector employees — more than the combined totals of 21 other states — California is the big prize, which is why pro-Janus organizing in California is likely to accelerate in the coming weeks and months.

“I am optimistic that there are tens of thousands of teachers in California who feel the oppression of the strident, left-leaning leadership there, and who will be excited to exercise these rights,” said Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the Janus lawsuit. For several decades the organization focused its organizing efforts in Washington state where it is based, and more recently in Oregon. It recently opened an office in Fullerton and has hired a California director to oversee its activities in the state, along with canvassers.

The organization also has a website titled Opt Out Today, including a separate page targeted at California. In recent months, they’ve showed at up at union informational meetings at several school districts, handing out flyers encouraging teachers to terminate their memberships.

Yet these efforts are not taking place in a vacuum. Union locals are also reaching out to their members and asking them to sign membership cards or forms re-committing themselves to pay union fees, unless they opt out within a specified annual timeframe. And unions have convinced California legislators to approve legislation to help them retain and recruit members.

“This is trench warfare,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “What we are seeing now is a really strong effort by the unions to be fully engaged in the workplace. They have put a big effort into signing up members.”

“If unions are not very engaged with their membership, and having direct one-on-one conversations in the workplace, with teachers talking to teachers, they could see an erosion of membership,” Jacobs said.

Leaders of the largest school employee unions in general dismissed the impact of right-wing organizing efforts in California. “They are coming in like vultures after what they think is a dead carcass,” said Eric Heins, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association. “But they are going to be very surprised. We are very alive and we are not going away.”

“This is just part of doing business,” said Dave Low, executive director of the 220,000-member California School Employees Association, representing so-called “classified” staff such as custodians, secretaries and maintenance and cafeteria workers. He said his members, who are often at the lower end of the salary scale compared to teachers, recognize the value of their union membership. “I am not going to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about these guys,” he said, referring to the conservative organizing efforts.

If his members “fall for the crazy lie that these people are telling them,” he said, “then so be it.”

In addition to the Freedom Center and Mackinac Center, another active organization is the California Policy Center, based in Tustin in Orange County. According to Will Swaim, its president, the organization has a special interest in teachers. “Our organization has always been focused on education and education choice, particularly for poor kids and anyone in a failing school,” he said. He said that he believes that between 20 and 30 percent of the CTA’s membership are likely candidates to drop their union membership — up from the 9 percent who had already done so prior to the Supreme Court ruling on the Janus case. 

All these organizations are affiliates of the State Policy Network, a key conservative organization with affiliates in 49 states. Its funding sources are obscure, but according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization, one source of its funds in recent years has been Donors Trust, which in turn receives funds from hundreds of individuals, corporations and private foundations, including well-known supporters of conservative causes like the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

None of these organizations are required by law to publicly identify their backers, and none choose to do so. “We are committed to protect their privacy, so people can feel empowered to give to causes without fear of being intimidated or exposure based on the issues that they choose to support,” said Lindsay Killen, the Mackinac Center’s vice-president for strategic outreach and communications. The Freedom Foundation’s Lund says that in addition to some large donors, his organization also has “tens of thousands” of small donors whose names they protect so they won’t be “poached” by other organizations, and for their own security. 

The California Policy Center’s Swaim also said that donor privacy relates to their “personal security.” “There is ample evidence that people who give money to conservative or liberal causes have themselves become a target,” he said. 

Swaim explains how over a several year period his organization has worked with a partner organization, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, to set up a site called Transparent California, which contains salary information for all 1.4 million public employees and for an additional 2.5 million retirees receiving state pensions. In some case, it obtained the information by filing lawsuits against local municipalities, such as Central Valley communities Fresno, Hanford and Taft, demanding the names and salaries of their employees through the California Public Records Act.

The key part of the strategy is to get public employees’ names. Armed with those, they are able to link them to other information through commercially available lists, voter registration rolls and social media sites. Swaim said that five is the minimum number of “data points” that are needed on each employee to be useful, but in many cases they have assembled up to 35 such “data points.”

These could include employees’ political party affiliations and whom they interact with most frequently through social media.

“We work really hard to make sure we understand the entire social network in which people operate,” he said. “We want to make sure we are able to reach not just a particular teacher, but all the teachers he or she knows.”

At the moment, he said, his organization is sending out emails “to see what messages are most effective. The early returns are ‘I don’t like the union’s politics and I want my money,'” he said. Swaim also says his organization does not receive any funds from well-known conservative backers like the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation. But he said he would welcome contributions from them.

For now, conservative groups trying to leverage the Janus decision to further erode union membership don’t seem too intimidated by the fact that California is one of the “bluest” states in the nation and public sector unions wield enormous power here. In fact, the Freedom Foundation’s Lund said the stronger the union leadership, the more fertile ground it presents, because it provokes more unhappiness among at least a sizable minority of teachers. “The places where the left is more brazen, we have more people opting out (of paying union fees),” he said.

It is hard to know how successful these efforts have been — and are likely to be in the coming months. Joshua Pechthalt, president of the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers, acknowledged the fight that lies ahead. “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We fully expect phone calls, door-to-door knocking, the whole gamut of engagement to get people to leave the union.”

“This is a tough period for the American labor movement,” he said. “But I fully expect that we will claw our way back.”

The organizations described in this report are not required to publicly disclose their funding sources, making it difficult to track donors and recipients. A range of progressive and left-of-center organizations have attempted to identify the source of funding of organizations promoting the Janus lawsuit and other similar cases. See this report by the Economic Policy Institute. To track individual donations, see the Conservative Transparency database. 

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  1. Geoff H 4 years ago4 years ago

    "Now several conservative organizations with funding sources they decline to disclose ..." It's okay, we don't need them to disclose them publicly. We already know it's Koch dark money. Read More

    “Now several conservative organizations with funding sources they decline to disclose …”

    It’s okay, we don’t need them to disclose them publicly. We already know it’s Koch dark money.