Supreme Court’s union ruling no surprise to Long Island labor leaders

Many local labor representatives say they had prepared for the decision and held strategy meetings with members who were urged to sign "recommitment" cards.

Leaders of public-employee unions across Long Island described the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus case Wednesday as an unwelcome development — but not one that took them by surprise.

Many local labor representatives said that, in fact, they had prepared for the court decision months in advance. Often their strategy included meetings with individual rank-and-file members, who were urged to sign “recommitment” cards pledging to continue their payment of dues.

On Wednesday, the high court ruled 5-4 that government workers could not be forced to contribute to unions that represented them in collective bargaining. The case was named for Mark Janus, a child-support worker in Illinois, who challenged state rules requiring payment of union dues as a condition of employment.

Kevin Coyne, president of the Brentwood Teachers Association, the Island’s biggest faculty union, said representatives talked with members in all 18 of the district’s schools during the spring, explaining the organization’s position, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“I had buildings that were 100 percent within a day-and-a-half,” said Coyne, referring to the number of members recommitting to payment. “Members didn’t want to lose their union protection.”

Annual union dues in Brentwood are $900 per member, Coyne said.

Brentwood’s union is backed by a 600,000-member statewide organization, New York State United Teachers or NYSUT, whose Albany-based leadership voiced confidence Wednesday in its ability to weather the political and financial storm. Some other public-employee representatives expressed similar confidence.

Kevin Black, president of the Superior Officers Association, Nassau County, which represents police from the rank of sergeant up, said he would be surprised if 3 percent or more of members decided to quit the union. He added that members understood the benefits of collective bargaining, and the union would provide legal representation to any member accused of misconduct.

“One allegation can cost more in attorney’s fees just for the first interview than an entire year of dues,” Black said.

In contrast, the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank also headquartered in Albany, calculated that about 200,000 New York government workers who chose not to join unions stood to save over $110 million a year in dues. Under current state law, now apparently voided by the Janus ruling, government employees who opt not to pay union dues are required to pay similar “agency fees” instead.

“What today’s decision affirms for all public workers is the right to choose, and that’s the most important part of it,” said Tim Hoefer, the Empire Center’s executive director.

Supporters of organized labor described the Janus decision as a signal to workers that they can no longer take for granted the annual pay raises, health-insurance coverage, workplace protections and other benefits once associated with union membership. Those advocates described the lawsuit decided Wednesday as part of an orchestrated nationwide effort to erode the status of ordinary Americans.

“It’s not about freedom of association,” said Kim Cook, a training associate at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It’s backed by wealthy and powerful business interests that have their own agenda.”

Cook said the school’s Worker Institute, since October, has conducted workshops for about 300 union officials in how to cope with challenges such as the Janus case. One strategy, she said, is for labor organizations to go “back to their roots” in advocating for things that people care about — wages, pensions, health care.

Patty Kolodnicki, a seventh-grade teacher and NYSUT union delegate from Levittown, said the public should understand that the union benefits not only teachers, but also students, who are protected against classroom overcrowding by contractual limits on class sizes.

“Ultimately, our students are the people we want to protect,” Kolodnicki said.

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