Hard times at the AFSCME convention.
Los Angeles — Since 2008, we’ve seen the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Unlike 75 years ago, however, unions and the Left have this time largely failed to build a rigorous movement of economic populism to further their goals: Witness the now largely disbanded Occupy movement. Indeed, as members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered here last week, the mood was pessimistic.
“Our success or failure will mark a turning point not only for our union but for the entire labor movement,” Lee Saunders, the new AFSCME president, told his members. Attendees noted how few changes in labor law they had been able to get through Congress since President Obama’s election. Union members in San Diego and San Jose, two cities that voted heavily for Obama in 2008, mourned the overwhelming passage this month of ballot measures in those cities curbing public-sector pension benefits: In both, two-thirds of voters approved the measures. Hanging over the crowd was the crushing loss unions experienced in Wisconsin three weeks ago, when GOP governor Scott Walker won 38 percent of the votes of union members and apparently carried a majority of private-sector-union members.
But even as AFSCME delegates convened in Los Angeles, they received word of yet another blow. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case out of California that if a union wants to make a special demand from members for political activity in addition to its regular fees, it must give them ample notice so they can ask for their money back. But the court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, went further and indicated the union must also make its fee assessment opt-in instead of opt-out. That means the union would get no money unless workers affirmatively agreed to pay it, instead of the workers’ getting to keep their money only if they specifically asked for it back.