Assembly bolsters govt unions

by Kenneth Girardin |  | NY Torch

By an overwhelming margin, the state Assembly has approved a bill designed to partially inoculate New York’s government unions against a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending the unions’ ability to extract dues-like “fees” from employees.

NOTE: Due to a database error on the part of our legislative bill-tracking service, an earlier version of this post erroneously reported that the state Senate also passed this bill. In fact, as of Tuesday afternoon, the bill was pending “on third reading” on the Senate calendar.

The measure (S5778/A7601), sponsored by Sen. Marisol Alcantara (D-Manhattan) and Assemblyman Peter Abbate (D-Brooklyn), won the Assembly’s approval by a 131-4 margin last week. It makes a number of changes to state law affecting public employment union membership, destroying a long-standing protection that allows a worker to easily change his or her mind about joining a union. Instead, it lets the unions set the exit terms for their members.

As first explained here a few weeks ago, when the unions are allowed to make the rules on these sort of opt-out provisions, they set up every obstacle they can — effectively turning union membership into a Hotel California arrangement (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”).

Under current law, the change would have little practical impact. That’s because New York public employees have since 1977 been covered by the state’s agency-fee provision, which allows unions to collect so-called “fair share” payments from workers covered by union contracts but who choose not to join the union itself. Many employees thus choose to join the union knowing they’ll be paying dues or a dues equivalent either way. Signing the union card at least qualifies them for token membership perks (such as group discount movie tickets).

But a pending U.S. Supreme Court case could change this: a ruling is expected early next year on Janus v. AFSCME, in which an Illinois state employee is challenging the constitutionality of that state’s agency-fee law.

If the Court rules for AFSCME, the Alcantara law won’t have a measurable impact on New York. But if the Court rules for plaintiff Mark Janus, New York’s agency-fee law will be toast. All state, local government and school district employees covered by a union contract will, by mid-2018, have the chance to stop paying dues or agency fees.

The resulting loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues would be nothing short of catastrophic for the unions, which would have to scramble to get new and current workers to sign dues-deduction authorizations. Under the Alcantara bill, workers would have a much harder time getting out of paying dues once they’ve consented to join a union.

The first people to be affected by this bill could be the teachers expected to be hired by school districts in the coming months. If Governor Andrew Cuomo promptly signs the bill, and if teachers unions move to change their terms of membership, thousands of freshly minted teachers could be among the first employees to find themselves locked into mandatory dues payments the Janus ruling may make optional.

The data show that, when given that choice, workers choose not to pay unions in the first place: after its destructive 2005 strike crippled New York City, a judge halted Transit Workers Union Local 100‘s ability to intercept dues and fees from paychecks. As a result, more than half of members stopped paying dues.

More recently, when a 2014 court ruling let private-sector daycare workers stop paying agency fees to CSEA Local 100B, none of the 430 members were paying dues by December 2015, a U.S. Department of Labor investigation revealed.

The bill’s language actually seems to assume unions will set sufficiently outrageous terms to invite a court challenge. It includes a provision saying that a union can continue to collect dues for as long “as may be later determined by a court of competent jurisdiction to be constitutionally required or required by law”— language which, along with two generous severability clauses at the end of the bill, seems designed to ensure that membership cards signed under this section of law won’t be invalidated by a court challenge.

State lawmakers voting in favor of the bill are giving unions a firmer grip on future revenues while making it easier for them to snooker new members into paying dues they might soon be able to avoid. The Assembly votes against the measure were cast by Republicans David DiPietro, Michael Fitzpatrick, Andrew Goodell, and Kieran Lalor.

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- Kenneth Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.