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David Garcias, center, takes part in a Labor Day march with SEIU Local 221 members. / Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 221

This post initially appeared in the June 1 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

Every Wednesday in the concourse around City Hall in San Diego, there’s a sort of pop-up food court. (We recommend the poke bowl.)

But along with the vendors, and sometimes the celebrants of citizenship ceremonies at Golden Hall, there’s usually a guy working the crowd trying to get city employees to stop paying fees to their unions.

It has been almost a year since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees should not be required to pay fees to unions if they don’t want to be members. Supporters of the change say employees should not be required to fund political causes and entities they don’t like. And they eagerly anticipated the political changes that would come if public employee unions — like teachers unions — and others had far fewer resources to use to influence politics.

The unions, for their part, maintain that the people who don’t pay union dues are freeloaders: They still benefit from the contracts and bargaining unions leverage and they still get union representation if they think the contract has been violated.

The California Policy Center is helping lead that push here and teamed up with Carl DeMaio, who’s a fellow with the center, to work on getting people to drop their union memberships.

“I think the most important thing is that employees know that they have the freedom not to join a union. It’s a matter of personal freedom, what you do with your own money,” said Mark Bucher, CEO of California Policy Center.

The Janus Dropoff: Swaim’s group obtained data from San Diego County right after the Janus decision in June 2018, when the largest union of county of San Diego employees, SEIU 221, saw a 25 percent drop in the number of employees who were paying dues. There were 6,995 dues-paying county employees represented by SEIU then. The next month, it dropped to 5,268.

It has remained steady around 5,300 since then.

David Lagstein, the political director of SEIU 221, said the 1,700 or so were not members who saw the decision and opted out of paying the fees. They were already agency fee-payers. These unions had members and others who were, before Janus, just employees paying a minimal “agency fee.” It’s that fee that can no longer be obligatory.

So when the fee stopped being automatically deducted, those employees have not yet proactively decided to start paying it. The rest have stayed consistent.

“People still want to be part of the union and are staying. If the goal was to change their decision, it’s failing,” Lagstein said.

What about at the city? The largest union of city employees at City Hall is the Municipal Employees Association.

MEA has posted online its membership. It represents 5,000 city employees but does not charge hourly employees any fees. That leaves about 4,200 people who could be members. It lost 200 after Janus. They were also fee-payers and not full members.

So MEA did take a hit but like SEIU 221, it hasn’t seen a dropoff since the initial impact.

“It’s fair to say that specific efforts to get people to drop membership have failed in part because when we do get an occasional call or employees get approached, we explain who is behind it and it becomes clear to them that it’s not about freedom or public employee rights. They care about diminishing the voice of that employee through union participation and political actions,” MEA General Manager Michael Zucchet told us.

We asked Swaim whether he did have a political agenda beyond this personal freedom message.

“I think it’s wonderful that some of the unions are putting more effort into listening and supporting their members and it’s very positive. To the extent that people voluntarily support them, whatever influence they have is the free choice of their members,” he said.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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