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Politicians and unions throw up roadblocks – here’s how they can be overcome

In 2018, after the Supreme Court said in Janus v. AFSCME that every public employee in the country had the First Amendment right to choose whether or not to pay a union, many union officials turned their focus to preventing existing members from leaving, and they looked to friendly politicians for help. One of those politicians was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who promised union leaders that he would have their backs.

“In New York, we’re going to do everything we can to protect the labor movement,” he said.

Cuomo was one of many politicians who promised to help unions in their efforts to keep deducting membership dues from public employees’ paychecks. Lawmakers in several states have tried to help their friends in the labor movement by throwing up roadblocks in front of public employees who want to exercise their rights.

But while unions and their allies have worked to limit employees’ rights, there are people available to help employees overcome the tricks used by unions and lawmakers.

Brigette Herbst, New York state director for Americans for Fair Treatment (AFFT), a membership organization that helps public employees declare their independence from unions, and Keith Williams, Pennsylvania state director, said they are familiar with the tactics used by unions.

“The good news is we know what the tricks are now,” said Williams. “We can often see them coming and so we understand how to help employees navigate their way through them.”

Herbst and Williams recently shared what they have seen on the ground as they have helped public employees overcome the roadblocks used by unions and union-friendly politicians.

One of the most popular tactics used by unions is the use of “opt-out windows,” said Herbst. After an employee tells the union they would like to resign their membership, the union points to the fine print at the bottom of a dues authorization form and tells them that they can only resign their union membership during a small window, whether it’s a few weeks a year, or even a few weeks every few years. Union recruiters rarely give employees time to review membership forms before they sign.

“Much like a bad gym contract, employees are often unaware of the restrictive language until they try to leave the union,” she said.  

Both Williams and Herbst said they have had success helping employees end their membership and dues payments even when unions claim employees can’t stop paying dues until the window reopens.

“All it takes is one letter or phone call from attorneys, and the unions usually back down,” said Williams.

In order to get free legal help to public employees, Williams and Herbst work closely with public interest law firms in their states – the Fairness Center and the Government Justice Center.

Another common tactic union officials use is “ghosting” – they just ignore letters or other correspondence from public employees who choose to resign.

Williams worked with one teacher who sent three certified letters to the Pennsylvania State Educators Association (PSEA) declaring her intention to resign from the union, and still didn’t receive a response.

“At some point,” said Williams, “it may be necessary to get an attorney involved. Fortunately there are public interest law firms like the Fairness Center that will help public employees for free in situations like this one.”

Unions also use tactics to try to delay public employees from opting out.

For example, when public employees send opt-out letters to the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), one of the largest unions for municipal workers in New York, the employees get a letter back saying they need to send a letter to the statewide secretary as well – even if the employees have already done that, said Herbst.

“What employees should understand is that it is their employer’s responsibility to stop dues from coming out of their paychecks whether the union has notified the employer or not,” she said. “The employer has a responsibility to protect their employees’ constitutional rights.”

Another tactic used by unions in New York and Pennsylvania is to give employees misinformation to discourage them from opting out.

“I constantly hear from people who have heard from the union that they would lose their employer benefits if they opt-out – like their pension and health care – which just isn’t true,” said Herbst.

It is telling that unions and their political allies are trying to make it harder for people to leave instead of working to serve their members better, said Williams.

“If you’re truly serving people, you don’t have to force them to stay,” he said. “On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about providing good service if you can rely on captivity or coercion or prevent employees from learning their options.”

Suzanne Bates

Suzanne Bates is Senior Writer and Researcher with Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector workers offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2020, Suzanne worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, as Policy Director with the Yankee Institute, as a contributor for The Hartford Courant, and as a regular commentator for WNPR’s The Wheelhouse.