Preparing for Janus
Jennifer Harrington, an assistant director of academic advisement at Baruch College, called home visits a “tried-and-true campaign method.”
In an ongoing effort to strengthen the union in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME forbidding the collection of agency shop fees, union activists have been visiting members on campus – going from office to office and organizing lunch-time meetings. More recently, PSC members are using another organizing tactic: meeting members and agency shop fee payers at their homes.
A WINNING TACTIC
While a new method for the PSC, the strategy has long been used by private-sector unions for new member organizing – the philosophy being that workers are often more comfortable talking with organizers outside their place of employment.
“It is a tried-and-true campaign method,” said Jennifer Harrington, an assistant director of academic advisement at Baruch College, who participated in home visits in Upper Manhattan in January. “Before we had cellphones or whatever, it was what you did: you went out and knocked on doors.”
PSC President Barbara Bowen, who accompanied Harrington during the home visits, added, “The Trump administration is aggressively attacking the fundamental right of working people to band together and use our collective power to gain better salaries and protections than any one person could gain alone. That’s why the PSC is fighting back with equal seriousness. We are returning to labor- movement practices like home visits that enabled workers to win unions in the first place.” Bowen continued, “And every member who did home visits with the PSC in January said they wanted to do it again.”
The PSC home visits are part of state unions’ larger strategy as they prepare for a ruling against unions this year in Janus v. AFSCME. Activists from the PSC’s parent union, New York State United Teachers, have taken this issue to the doors of 40,000 members. Much of this grassroots mobilization, which occurred last year, focused on turning out a “no” vote in the constitutional convention referendum in November; however, the union is refocusing that momentum on new member sign-ups. PSC members will have the opportunity over the next few months to participate in home visits.
A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE
Harrington, who is also a part-time PSC grievance representative, said that the experience was positive. “It was really interesting – as far as the reactions, it was kind of a mixed bag at first,” she said. “They were all quite surprised, saying, ‘I can’t believe you are visiting us personally!’ or ‘Why didn’t you call ahead?’” She recalled, “But it was more positive; once they got past the surprise, it was positive.”
Harrington added, “It was also a smart move because we’re reaching the people whom it’s very hard to reach.”
Harrington noted that another positive aspect of home visits is the opportunity to organize a more diverse array of people beyond her campus.
“We saw an adjunct at Baruch, a higher education officer at John Jay, a non-teaching adjunct at Hunter. [Outreach] was cross-title and cross-campus,” she said. “From an activist point of view, you need to meet people outside of your own title. You learn about them, and it makes people connected. The more knowledge the better, and it makes you more empathetic.”
The PSC plans to continue asking activists, many of whom have already signed up colleagues on campus, to start doing home visits to get agency shop fee payers to sign up and get current members to sign recommitment cards.
The stakes are high for the PSC and other public-sector unions: if the Supreme Court rules against labor, public-sector unions nationwide would be forbidden from collecting agency shop fees, the payments non-members of a bargaining union pay for the representation and services they receive from the union.
Harrington became a rank-and-file PSC activist during the 2016 strike authorization vote, and it was during that campaign that she realized the power of on-the-ground, one-on-one member organizing.
“I really got on board with going up to complete strangers at Baruch and explaining why we needed a strike authorization,” she said. “I got the activist bug from that.” In future home visits Harrington hopes to encourage other members to become rank-and-file organizers themselves.
“What I don’t think a lot of people realize is that being an activist and going out canvassing – it can actually be a lot of fun,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be seen as a slog or a huge time commitment, because if you truly believe in the union, you’d want to give back in that way.”