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Teachers unions hustle to ensure their survival after Janus decision

ALBANY, N.Y. — The team of teachers pulled up to the school custodian’s house on a steamy summer day hoping to close the deal. They had been there twice with no luck, and Marsel Kovaci was proving to be a hard sell.

He was a union agency fee-payer, meaning he had declined to join the union but was still obligated to pay union fees — obligated, that is, until the Supreme Court declared otherwise in June.

With a salary half that of a teacher, the janitor suddenly had a decision to make. So Mary Kruchinski, a representative of the New York State United Teachers, wasted no time.

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“What’s the best thing about your job?” she asked.

“The kids,” he said. “I try to keep things nice for them.”

“We wanted to talk about why it’s important to be a full part of the union,” Kruchinski said.

When the discussion moved to how much the switch would cost him, Kovaci disappeared into his house to retrieve his wife. Kruchinski shot her teammate a worried look.

Teachers unions across the country are facing such discussions as they deal with the fallout of the June 27 Supreme Court decision that prohibits labor unions from compelling public workers to pay dues if they are not members.

Janus vs. AFSCME dealt a stinging blow to teachers unions in particular, which are projected to lose up to a third of their members.

It has become important fodder in the fight to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court because Democrats argue that past nominees’ solemn promises to abide by court precedent were belied by the majority’s vote to overturn past rulings in the Janus case.

More pressing for the teachers unions, the ruling jeopardizes a funding stream that has made them political heavyweights for decades. In that sense, Janus has been a rude awakening for the big unions that some say have lost touch with the educators they are supposed to lead.

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“Since they’ve built up this big political muscle, organizing has been less necessary because they have money and power,” said Evan Stone, a founder of Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led advocacy organization.

“This whole effort to reconnect is only happening because of Janus, and it should have been happening the whole time,” Stone said.

The American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliates like the New York State United Teachers are hoping to counter Janus with aggressive “recommitment” campaigns. The union has focused on 18 states with the largest numbers of public employees.

The day before the Janus decision came down, they reported that of the 800,000 members in those states, they had secured more than 500,000 membership cards during the past five months.

Conservative groups that bankrolled the Janus case have begun a nationwide push to inform public workers of their new rights to opt out. They have long argued that mandated agency fees infringed on the rights of public employees, who were unjustly forced to pay for political and policy advocacy that they did not agree with.

Now, with the backing of the Supreme Court, the groups plan to make sure that no employees do so a day longer than they want to.

“This is a game-changer, a tremendous victory for worker freedom,” said Erica Jedynak, the New Jersey state director of Americans For Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles and David Koch.

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Americans For Prosperity is among the organizations working with a Michigan-based conservative group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to focus on states that have high numbers of public workers, such as New York, New Jersey, and California.

Within hours of the Janus decision, the organization set up its website, My Pay My Say, which allows public employees in all 50 states to obtain information about their new rights under Janus.

The Mackinac Center is planning to spend $10 million this year and $40 million to $50 million over the next two or three years on a “national awareness campaign.” The organization has opened a national call center, staffed around the clock by 20 trained representatives, to help public employees opt out.

It will also fund canvasses and literature campaigns across the country, said Lindsay Killen, vice president for strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center.

The American Federation of Teachers is showing no signs of tempering its political activities. This week, the federation hosted its national conference, where the headliners included Hillary Clinton and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two potential presidential candidates in 2020.