The emails arrived barely six hours after the Supreme Court issued its Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 decision on June 27.
Sent to teachers’ work email addresses, they ostensibly came from a woman named Amanda Burke. “The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that all government workers — teachers, state workers, local public employees, police, firefighters and more —now have a real choice when it comes to their unions,” they said. “Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending, or something else — you now have the right to stop paying for activities you don’t support.”
“It turned my stomach,” says a Long Island middle-school teacher who asked not to be identified. An active New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) member, she was already upset about the Court’s decision.
The emails, sent to teachers from Rochester to Long Island, came from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan policy-and-propaganda organization that campaigned for state laws there banning the union shop and repealing “prevailing wage” standards for construction workers on public projects. They are part of a nationwide campaign by far-right groups against public-sector unions.
The Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington, announced the day of the Janus decision that it had hired 80 canvassers to persuade union members on the West Coast to drop out. The Mackinac Center had been planning the email campaign for months; it sent similar messages to teachers in California, Illinois, New Jersey, and other states.
In New York, more than 500,000 public-sector workers got emails from a group calling itself New Choice NY, telling them that they now “have every right to say no” to staying in the union. The Civil Service Employees Association calls the group “an affiliate of Americans for Fair Treatment, a front group funded by corporate billionaires including the Koch brothers.”
New York is a rich target: It has the highest percentage of union members of any state, with 23.8 percent of workers union members and 25.3 percent represented by unions, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2017. About two-thirds of public-sector workers in the state are union members, according to a 2017 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
“We are reaching out to all public employees throughout the country, and teachers are a critical mass of public employees in New York State,” a Mackinac Center spokesperson told the Rockland/Westchester Journal News June 28.
NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn says the union prepared for the Janus decision by internal organizing, including knocking on more than 100,000 members’ doors, and that it plans to visit new members this summer. It recommended that members tell Mackinac that they’re sticking with the union and then report the email as spam. The Long Island teacher says “99 percent” of the members of her local signed “recommitment cards.”
“Union members are smart,” Korn told The Indypendent. “They’re not going to fall for this spam from an outside group.”
The Mackinac Center apparently got the teachers’ email addresses from a combination of combing through the websites of school districts that post them for parents and Freedom of Information Law requests, says Korn. The CSEA says New Choice NY got workers’ addresses from “standard government email domains.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order June 27 prohibiting state officials from releasing state workers’ personal addresses, phone numbers or email addresses to anyone except a union unless under court order — but it does not cover their work email addresses, which are considered public information. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo issued a similar order in July.
Another side of the anti-union campaign is more than 30 lawsuits seeking to force unions to reimburse nonmembers for agency fees they paid, including nine filed against state affiliates of the National Education Association. In California, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is suing Service Employees International Union Local 1000 to demand that it refund $100 million in fees paid by about 40,000 current and former state workers since 2012.
These suits argue that the Janus decision, which also held that workers had to opt into union membership instead of having to opt out if they didn’t want to join, should be applied retroactively. Federal courts dismissed several similar cases after the Court’s 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision, a precursor to Janus which held that home health aides paid by Medicaid couldn’t be required to pay fees to their union because they weren’t “full-fledged public employees.” They ruled that the unions should not have to reimburse fees that were legal when they were collected.
The Supreme Court may feel differently. In a little-noticed move on June 28, it vacated the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Riffey v. Rauner denying class-action certification to health aides backed by National Right to Work who were trying to force Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois & Indiana to refund $32 million in fees. The Court ordered the Seventh Circuit to reconsider its ruling “in light of Janus.”
Illustration by Gary Martin.