Janus anniversary finds members making PEF stronger than ever
By SHERRY HALBROOK
Did your mom or dad ever warn you to be very skeptical when someone promises you “something for nothing?”
Whether it was their parents’ advice or their own common sense, PEF members stood up, turned around and walked away from one of the country’s biggest something-for-nothing scams to ever come down the road.
The trap was set one year ago, on June 27, 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that split the justices 5 to 4 in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled in favor of a public employee named Mark Janus in what was always meant to be a death blow to public-employee unions throughout the country.
The decision requires unions to represent all public employees in their bargaining units, including those who neither join the union and pay dues, nor pay agency fees to support the union’s work. In other words, employees theoretically could enjoy the benefits of a union contract for free.
The aim was to dangle the bait of “something for nothing” to cause mass member defections and drain the unions’ resources, so they would fail to negotiate and enforce strong contracts and eventually fade away.
The well-heeled and organized union-haters behind the Janus case won the legal battle, but they’ve lost the war. They’ve lost it because PEF members and other public employees saw through the sham and stepped right over the trap.
“Our members are much too smart to fall for this and they have stayed strong and unified. That empowers us to move forward every day with our campaigns and programs to make their lives better and more successful,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “We know we can achieve our goals because our members’ loyalty and commitment to the union make that possible.”
PEF has more members today (more than 52,500, compared to nearly 51,870) than it had a year ago when the Janus ruling was announced, and that’s because the union saw the challenge coming, kept you informed by constantly reaching out to you in person and online, and always looks for ways to hear and follow up on your concerns, ideas and goals.
Not only did the Janus court decision fail to destroy PEF, the union’s leaders say it has actually made the union both stronger and more focused on its service and relevance to every member.
“It’s a much more critical issue than ever before, but we can see that we’re moving in the right direction,” said PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio, who leads PEF’s organizing efforts. “We’re really optimistic about reaching out to new employees coming into the bargaining units that PEF represents. We recognize how important it is to speak to members directly and to make sure our message resonates with them. We’re working hard to be a lot more visible to members.”
Both DiAntonio and Dan Carpenter, PEF’s associate director of field service organizing, said putting a priority on reaching individual members has intensified the union’s focus on strengthening its local divisions.
“It’s easy to think of PEF’s leaders and top staff at our headquarters as ‘the union,’” Spence said, “but that’s a mistake. Sure, what we do to lead, steer and coordinate PEF is essential, but for members it’s their local division that they see and depend on to represent them every day in their workplace. We recognize now, more than ever, that we must help PEF divisions to be as energized, inclusive, efficient, relevant and effective in meeting members’ needs as possible.”
“In an effort to strengthen PEF leadership at the division level,” Carpenter said, PEF’s Field Services Organizing Department and the union’s Divisions Department have teamed up to meet with members and elected leaders at the division level, especially those that have unfilled steward and leadership posts. When we meet with them, we teach them how to organize and build division power by involving their members.”
PEF members work very hard on their day jobs, so taking on additional responsibilities for their PEF division is asking a lot, but the more people who step up the lighter the burden for everyone. It also means the division can tap into many more members’ ideas, skills, experience and insights.
“You don’t always know how much effect your questions or your efforts have,” DiAntonio said. “Sometimes the real benefit may be future decisions or actions by management that are stopped or changed because of questions we asked.
“PEF works hard to help members understand that it’s management, not the union, that sets the rules and policies and creates the working conditions they don’t like,” DiAntonio said. “We want them understand, ‘We are fighting for changes to help you, but we need you to help us do that.”
At the same time, it is also crucial for union leaders to pause sometimes and just listen, DiAntonio added.
“For members, or for anybody, being listened to goes a long way,” she said.
“When members realize they are the union and their voices are heard and respected, that’s a game changer,” Spence said. “When divisions start to channel that energy and strength, it’s like the grass in your lawn after a good rain. It just takes off. The division is primed and ready for action. That’s where good goal-setting, planning and tactical skills come in. We want to make sure they have sharp focus and the best chance to succeed in tackling the issues that matter most to their members.”
Carpenter said members should realize they don’t have to be elected to a PEF office to make very valuable contributions to PEF and their co-workers. They can serve on committees, they can help mobilize and inform other members, and they can welcome new employees to PEF and to their division. Elected leaders have administrative duties and they welcome volunteers who can focus on specific needs and help spread the union spirit throughout their division.
And being involved in the union isn’t only about duties and work. Enjoying Family Fun Days, visiting the NYS Fair and marching together in labor parades is great fun and helps the public see who you are and what union spirit means.
“We’ve learned that communication is the key, and by having a full steward council and active volunteers on a division’s committees, that communication tree grows and spreads to reach every member,” Carpenter said. “It means PEF can deliver information to members quicker and more effectively, and members can keep the union informed about what is happening to them and the local issues that matter most.”
Members’ strong, enthusiastic support of PEF’s PS&T contract team is a perfect example of how empowering that can be. When members were asked what works and doesn’t work for them in their contract, they were not shy about speaking out. Now that their contract team is deep into negotiations with the state, members are not shy about demonstrating their solidarity and determination to support the team. Every time the union asks members to step up for campaigns such as Members in Black and #Fridays the response is overwhelming. Photos and social media posts come flooding in to show how members recognize their contract team is speaking for them.
“This member energy of involved and informed participation has to keep growing and going forward,” DiAntonio said. “We must keep reaching out to members and being in touch with them as many ways as we can, because the attacks on unions and on PEF are not stopping. The people who want to shut us up and shut us down are constantly circling and looking for vulnerabilities where they can attack us.
“We are spread over 56 agencies and more than 3,000 job titles. We are spread over a big and diverse state, but we have so much in common,” DiAntonio said. “We must stand in solidarity. Of course, nothing brings people together more than a common enemy, and knowing that we are and will be under continuing attacks forces us to sit down and really talk about finding our voice on the job. The only way our union works is when we all do it together.
“We should all feel good a year after Janus and take pride in what we have accomplished in the face of our biggest threat yet. It’s you, our members who make me proud,” Spence said. “You constantly step up and demonstrate your unity and belief in our mission. That is why we succeed together, over and over again. And as long as we are committed and unified, we cannot be defeated.”