Bill would smash gov’t worker rights

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

Legislation introduced by the politically potent state Senate Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) would scrap a decades-old worker protection and make it more difficult for government employees not already covered by a union contract to change their mind about paying dues to a labor union.

S5778 was introduced in April by Senator Marisol Alcantara, and is co-sponsored by the IDC’s other seven members as well as Republican Senator Patrick Gallivan (R-Erie). The bill cleared the Senate Civil Service and Pensions committee yesterday with two Republicans, Senators Marty Golden (R-Brooklyn) and Patty Ritchie (R-St. Lawrence) voting with all the committee’s Democratic members to advance it. The measure, which has also been introduced in the Assembly, could reach the Senate floor shortly after members return in early June.

The sponsor’s memo says the bill will “simplify the process for an individual to join a public employee union by clarifying and streamlining the dues deduction authorization process.” The bill makes a number of technical changes to the Civil Service Law, such as easing the procedure under which an employee can ask their employer to deduct dues from their paycheck, and setting a time limit on how soon the deductions have to begin and be transmitted to the union. Necessary changes, according to the memo, to “make sure that the process is consistent among all public employers in the state.”

But one provision makes a far-reaching change: since the 1970s, government workers who voluntarily join a union have been able to withdraw from union dues deduction “at any time” simply by notifying their employer, under section 93B of the General Municipal Law. Section 5 of the Alcantara bill would supersede that, letting workers withdraw “only in accordance with the terms of the signed authorization.”

The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) has held since 1977 (see page 3 of this ruling) that Section 93B prevents government unions from creating obstacles for workers who change their mind about joining. In that ruling, PERB struck down the Rochester Teachers Association practice of only allowing withdrawals during a 15-day period each year, requiring the union to refund dues plus interest. That case law has endured for 40 years, blocking subsequent union efforts to create obstacles for people who change their minds.

Alcantara’s proposal wouldn’t just tie an employee’s hands with respect to choosing to unionize: it would likely commit them to a particular union, and force them to support that union financially for up to 11 months, which can add up to several hundred dollars in dues the worker no longer wants to pay.

Eliminating workers’ Section 93B protections would put workers in a  “Hotel California” box (“You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave!”). Unions could set far-reaching or impractical conditions for withdrawal, something they haven’t been bashful about in the past.

AFSCME, the parent union of CSEA, DC37 and Council 82, has already shown what hoops it can force workers to jump through as a way to keep more money in government union coffers. In order to have the portion of their dues that supports “ideological activity” rebated, as required by a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, workers must send two certified or registered letters (at a cost of $3.35 each) each year during a 16-day period, after which the worker has 30 days to complete and return a detailed application for the rebate. With Section 93B out of the way, those same obstacles could be extended to the entire dues payment.

The immediate beneficiaries to the bill would be CSEA and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represent daycare workers who receive state subsidies. These workers previously had parts of their state payments intercepted and steered to one of the unions following a 2007 executive order by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, but the arrangement was invalidated as a result of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that people who aren’t “full-fledged” employees couldn’t be compelled to provide financial support to a government union.

Since then, CSEA and UFT have needed to collect explicit authorization from each worker before any money can be taken from their paychecks. The Alcantara bill would let the unions lock in those workers for longer periods by leaving them with a narrow timeframe and procedural hurdles for backing out. Each time a worker would miss the window or make an error in the withdrawal process, the union would collect hundreds of dollars it would have otherwise lost. This benefit would extend to other government union efforts in those quarters of state and local government that haven’t already unionized, such as smaller towns and counties.

Government workers now covered by union contracts would not be immediately affected, since the law separately forces them to pay agency-shop fees, often of the same amount, if they choose not to pay dues as union members. However, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the agency-shop fee violates a worker’s right to choose, as it nearly did last year in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, all employees that subsequently elect to pay union dues would face a larger hurdle if they later changed their minds.

Under their coalition arrangement with the Senate Republicans, the IDC members hold inordinate clout in the chamber, increasing the possibility that this measure will win passage—if Republicans don’t stand in the way.

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