Democrats seek union protections
Legislators push bill to counter labor ruling
By Christian M. Wade Statehouse Reporter Feb 24, 2019
BOSTON — Democrats are seeking to ease the blow to the state's labor unions from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited collection of dues and fees from workers’ paychecks.
More than 100 state lawmakers — all Democrats — have signed onto legislation that would allow unions to represent nonmembers for grievances and other work-related negotiations, and to charge workers for those costs. The measure would also give organized labor representatives access to new hires and non-union members in state and local government to speak with them about joining a union.
Union leaders say the protections are needed to safeguard workers' rights and push back against conservative groups seeking to reduce public-sector membership.
"The wealthy special interests behind the Supreme Court ruling have changed the landscape," said Peter MacKinnon, president of Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents public-sector workers. "This legislation will level the playing field so unions have the opportunities we've always had to access members and potential members."
In its June 27 opinion, a Supreme Court majority sided with Mark Janus, an Illinois child-support specialist who does not belong to the union and fought its $45 monthly fee for covering him in contract negotiations. He argued that his money helped finance the union’s political activities, thus violating his right to free speech.
The court’s decision ended a provision in Massachusetts and 21 other states that required public employees to pay what’s known as "fair share" fees as a condition of employment, even if they don’t want to be union members. The fees are meant to offset the costs of collective bargaining and contract administration that benefit them.
Conservative groups say Democrats — and labor unions that heavily fund their political campaigns — are trying to find a way around the court's ruling.
"It's thug tactics," said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. "They are proposing legislation that’s nothing short of a wish list for union bosses to harass and intimidate new hires."
Union officials argue that workers who get the union's benefits, such as legal representation in arbitration hearings, should have to pay something toward collective bargaining.
"These costs of arbitration can run up to $1,500 a day," said Jim Durkin, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93. "The Supreme Court recognized that it’s unfair for dues-paying union members to cover that cost for someone who is not contributing to the union."
The proposed legislation, if approved, also would shield union members’ names, addresses and telephone numbers from the public. Durkin said the protections are needed to prevent "harassment" of rank-and-file union members from conservative groups he says have been contacting workers to get them to drop their membership.
Despite efforts to dissuade union participation, he said only about 23 of the 45,000 union members in the organization's four-state region opted out of paying the dues following the court's ruling.
Nationally, labor unions in state and local government lost only 54,000 members in 2018, a decline of less than 1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"These groups thought the Janus decision was going to be a weapon of mass destruction against the unions," Durkin said. "It turned out to be more like a firecracker."
Locally, many Democratic lawmakers have signed onto the legislation, including Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn, and Reps. Jerry Parisella of Beverly, Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead and Ann Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester.
A similar proposal was approved by the state Senate last year, but stalled in the House of Representatives before the Dec. 31 end of the legislative session.
To be sure, labor unions spend millions of dollars lobbying Beacon Hill, and most of their money goes to Democrats.
The right-leaning Pioneer Institute estimates that 18 of the 20 political action committees in Massachusetts that contribute the most to candidates are labor-related.
What's more, at least 85 percent of all PAC contributions in the state go to Democratic candidates, the group says.
On Thursday, Pioneer released a new report claiming that only a small portion of the annual union dues paid by faculty at the University of Massachusetts, state colleges and universities and community college campuses go to local chapters for collective bargaining.
The bulk of the money goes toward salaries, lobbying and other expenses in state and national offices that have little to do with bargaining on behalf of faculty, the Pioneer report found.
At Salem State University, the Massachusetts State College Association collects $944 a year in dues from members, but only 9 percent of that — about $175 — stays with the chapter, according to the Pioneer report.
Greg Sullivan, Pioneer's research director, said many of the provisions of the proposed legislation — such as allowing unions to sit in at hearings when non-union members bring grievances to their employers — would effectively "coerce employees to join unions."
Union leaders have blasted those studies as misleading and argue that the Supreme Court challenge was more about blunting the political clout of labor than protecting workers.
"These are conservative think tanks that are being funded by wealthy special interests," MacKinnon said. "Their motives are clear: to defund the labor movement."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected].