Greg Lalevee is a union guy. It comes with being the head of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825.
Lalevee also is fair-minded — and always willing to take an honest look at union issues in the 21st century economy. It’s why we reached out to him to get reaction on the Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, one that said public-sector employees could not be forced to join unions.
It’s a decision some experts quickly said was a death knell for the labor movement.
Lalevee didn’t disappoint with his thoughts.
“Janus reversed the 1977 Abood decision, which was a 9-0 decision,” he said. “I think overturning a 40-year-old Supreme Court case always is pretty telling. And it wasn’t like Abood was 5-4; Abood was 9-0. That’s a little bit chilling to me.
“Step outside of labor for a second: What other decisions are out there that generations have grown up with as a well-settled law that are now very unsettled?
“I guess I look at this a little more holistically than a straight up-and-down labor issue. What else is on the line if 9-0 isn’t sacred? Something 5-4? I start to wonder how much trouble those decisions are (in)?”
Some said the decision will force unions to work harder to get their members. It’s something Lalevee can relate to, as operating engineers do not have to join his union.
But Lalevee said a situation where some members are union and others are not — as will be in the case in some public-sector areas because of Janus — will create workplace tension that doesn’t need to be there, giving an example many may not have thought of.
“Hypothetically, if I were a union rep in the public sector, and if I had a member, or even a non-member now who I have a duty to represent come to me, I have now have to start the process of their grievance.
“What’s the only way I can show somebody that a union has an inherit value or strength other than saying, ‘We’re going right to arbitration’ instead of looking for a less-contentious setting?
“If I don’t do that, there will be people in the union or people considering joining the union that will say, ‘If the union isn’t going to stand up and fight, why do we need the union?’
“You’re left with no choice but to turn every little problem into a holy war instead of having a simple conversation. I think it forces the union side to dig in on issues, whether discussion or moderation might be more appropriate.”
Lalevee is a student of history. He knows the influence and importance of labor unions is cyclical and swings like a pendulum. The question is: Where is that pendulum now?
“Certainly, the past couple weeks from Washington suggest it’s swinging a little bit further to the right,” he said. “The question is: When and where does the breaking point come? When will people decide they’ve had enough?
“If we look generally at the unrest in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, maybe it’s now. I think the teachers in those states did a very effective job of demonstrating that workers could band together and assert themselves. I would think, or hope, that they saw the value of that.
“Right now, we’re just talking about the public sector. When is it going to result in some serious blowback? I think we’ve already started to see it in those three states.”