How to Survive and Thrive in a Right-to-Work Nation


I believe our unions can survive and thrive in a right-to-work nation.  America isn’t powered by quitters and neither is our labor movement.  We’re committed to our members, to each other, and to our communities.    

With President Trump and Justice Gorsuch, we know right-to-work will happen.  The only question is how soon. 

Survival won’t be easy.  It requires all of us to wage a fierce resistance and to change how we do our work.  Resisting wealthy extremists who want to give workers the right to live poor, get sick and die without union protections – that’s the easy part.  It’s who we are and it’s what we have always done.  Changing how we do business will be even harder.

Change to Thrive

Unions must change to survive and thrive.  Creating a path back to increased activism, membership and power requires one-on-one conversations and building relationships in the workplace.

Truth be told, our movement was stronger when unions had to collect dues directly from their members.  My grandfather was a union printer.  He proudly carried a proof-of-payment book, stamped like a Passport.  Back then, workers bonded at labor temples.  We lost touch when laws required the employer to deduct dues from paychecks.

Labor’s Crisis: Janus v. AFSCME

The Friedrichs case was derailed by the death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia, but what cannot die is the sense of crisis within our unions.  With several more lethal cases in the high court’s pipeline, we can’t dismiss the threat.

Janus v. AFSCME is the new Friedrichs.  The case argues that state employees should not be forced to pay union dues.

The Liberty Justice Center, the legal arm of the Illinois Policy Institute, is arguing on behalf of Illinois state employee Mark Janus, the primary plaintiff. 

Lawyers for AFSCME Council 31 insist these "fair share" dues only go towards funding collective bargaining efforts and do not subsidize other political activities. 

The case was heard by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 1, 2017 and is likely to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court with a possible ruling expected sometime between December 2017 and June 2018. 

AFSCME President Lee Saunders responded to oral arguments at the appellate court, saying, "It is clear that the corporate CEOs and wealthy special interests behind this case will stop at nothing to make it harder for public service workers to speak up together for better public services, stronger communities, and wages and protections that benefit all Americans." 

The Liberty Justice Center does not disclose its list of donors. The shroud of secrecy provides anonymity to donors who stand to gain from the court's ruling.


AFSCME Strong is how we survive and thrive in a right-to-work nation after Janus.  It’s our campaign to build an even stronger union with members who are more engaged.  In one year, we’ve trained 800 leaders to have conversations with 25,500 of their co-workers.  Instead of talking at workers, we listen.  We connect their hopes and concerns to our union vision.  We discuss how problems can be solved through collective action.

Building worker power and prosperity is like building a house.  Here’s how we’re building ours. 

Grow Membership

Our foundation is membership growth.  We lift our movement off the ground by organizing both new and current members.  Public workers organized their unions before it was legal.  We don’t need permission from any politician or court.  A union exists wherever workers come together with common purpose.

Mobilize Members

Then we mobilize our members to take action on issues that matter to their daily lives.  Workers who came before us marched, went to strike and even gave their lives in the struggles that won the weekend, safe working conditions, secure retirement benefits, and a voice on the job.  To protect those hard-earned gains, we create strong local unions.  Together we can build power to get the pay, benefits and respect we deserve.

Take Political Action

Our democracy will be at stake in the 2018 election.  Labor must unite to elect a pro-worker governor and restore DFL control of the Minnesota House.  Otherwise, we will be Wisconsin.  Better politics means better budgets and better contracts.  It’s how we protect our jobs, our retirement and the public services that Minnesota needs.  When workers have a voice in the halls of power, kids are smarter, families are healthier, and our communities are safer.

Build Public Support

Projecting a bold, proud image of union members is essential.  A strong identity builds member pride and loyalty and it attracts new members.  We reach elected officials, reporters and allies with a powerful message of who we are and what we’re fighting to protect.  Workers must tell their side of the story on the news.

Work in Coalition

Trump will try to pit union against union.  We’ve seen divide-and-conquer tactics in Wisconsin.  Our future depends on solidarity inside and outside the house of labor.  In the 1960s, we marched alongside Dr. King for civil rights.  Today, we must recognize the intersections of race, gender and class that impact and impassion our evolving membership in this hostile political environment.  Working together with community allies is critical to survival.

Wealthy extremists will continue their attacks on workers.  If we resist and change, they won’t write our obituary.