Child Welfare Unions Brace for Tough Sledding After Supreme Court Decision on Dues

SEIU Local 721, representing some 95,000 public sector workers in Los Angeles, didn’t wait for a decision in Janus v. AFSCME to be decided before it started planning for a new era of the labor movement.

David Green, children’s social worker and treasurer for SEIU Local 721 in Los Angeles. Photo: SEIU Local 721

“We’ve been prepping for this for a couple of years. We knew it’s not if, it’s when,” said David Green, a children’s social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and Local 721’s treasurer, in an interview with The Chronicle. “My motto is, Don’t panic.”

Local 721 is contemplating a future that will befall scores of other unions representing child welfare, juvenile justice and family services workers around the country. Under the Janus ruling, unions across the nation can no longer require workers to pay “fair share” fees, a move that is expected to result in a decrease in union revenues in 22 states. The other 28 states have laws already ensuring that non-union members do not have to pay dues.

Similar state-level rulings in so-called right-to-work states like Wisconsin have resulted in reduced union membership, lower wages, leaner benefits and higher caseloads for workers.

“Unions negotiate wages, benefits and safe working conditions on behalf of public sector employees – nurses, police, firefighters, janitors and teachers who all chip in and work together for that representation,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, in a press release. “The results speak for themselves. In states where everyone does not pay their fair share toward union representation, wages are lower, poverty rates are higher, fewer workers have health benefits, and the risk of workplace injury is higher than in states without fair share representation.”

Some analysts predict that union membership in the public sector will fall by about 700,000 post-Janus, and that government employees, like social workers and teachers, will see their wages dip by between 3 and 6 percent.

For Los Angeles’s social workers, the threat of higher caseloads is the greatest concern, especially on the heels of another brutal child fatality in Los Angeles County last month. Local 721 members went on strike last December, demanding that the county hire more workers so caseloads could be brought to a manageable number.

“It wasn’t about money. It was about lowering caseloads and keeping kids safe,” Green said. “Was it fun to lose $1,000 with two little kids at Christmas? No, but I would do it again.”

Despite efforts to convince union members to “decertify,” only about 50 members of Local 721 have done so since the ruling, according to Green. Membership dues are 1.5 percent of a social worker’s salary, Green said. Salaries range from about $55,000 to $77,000 annually in the greater Los Angeles area.

In a dissenting opinion in the case, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan voiced concern about what Janus means, not just for labor but also for the future of economic policy.

“There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion. The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this nation’s law — and in its economic life — for over 40 years,” wrote Kagan. “As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”

In Los Angeles, Local 721 is in the middle of contract negotiations for county social workers and continues to provide legal representation and whatever else its members need.

Looking ahead, Green says, it’s considering ways to reinvent itself and thinking about who its future members might be.

“I’m not happy about it, but it’s an opportunity to reassess where we are as a labor movement and to look at what we can do differently,” Green said. “Not just to provide services for our members, but what we can do to better support the communities we serve.”

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Christie Renick
About Christie Renick 123 Articles
Tucson-based Southwest Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow @christiejrenick.