State Workers Seek to Protect Labor Rights As Coronavirus Spreads

Originally published in The Intercept on March 21, 2020.

On Tuesday, a week after declaring a state of emergency due to the spread of Covid-19, Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order pertaining to his state’s 50,000 executive branch employees. The order extended paid leave to all state employees for absences like caring for children due to school closures, and authorized agency heads to waive parts of collective bargaining agreements so as to more easily deploy workers where and when needed. Minnesota law grants the governor such powers during such emergencies.

Publicly, unions representing these workers praised Walz for his action on paid leave, and offered only muted concerns about the collective bargaining measures — stressing they will monitor the situation to ensure employers do not abuse their new authorities.

Privately, though, unions were taken off guard by the governor’s actions, and were unable to get the state to agree to establishing guardrails in the order itself around preventing employer abuse.

Workers are concerned that other states, especially less labor-friendly ones, may follow Minnesota’s lead, and use the pandemic as a pretext to weaken unions in the long term. In California, some employers have been lobbying for a similar executive order, to free themselves of public-sector bargaining restraints. While state employees have made clear they’re committed to flexibly responding to the crisis, unions understand anti-labor managers have wielded emergencies to their benefit in the past.

On Thursday March 12, state union representatives had an in-person meeting with the Minnesota Management and Budget — an agency that governs personnel and finance issues — to check in about the novel coronavirus. In that meeting, which was described as “friendly and nonproductive” by an individual involved who was not authorized to speak about the discussions, union reps talked primarily about paid leave, and also raised concerns around telework, and safety equipment for health and correctional workers.  There was no discussion then of potentially waiving aspects of collective bargaining, and they all planned to meet again on Tuesday, March 17.

But on Monday, March 16, with less than an hour’s notice, the MMB emailed the unions an invitation for a conference call. It was on that call that state officials announced the draft of their forthcoming order, though they did not provide anyone on the call with a written copy of the text.

“It was received as a great surprise,” said one of the participants on the call. “A lot of questions were thrown out, and because we did not have the physical document in front of us, a lot of the questions were just like, ‘What did you say? What’s that phrase?’”

A few hours later union senior staff organized another call among themselves to discuss how to respond. They were less concerned about Walz and far more worried about how agency heads below him might interpret their new broad authorities. Many leaders of individual state agencies have been in charge since Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s tenure, and are not supportive of unions. Under the new order, employers can change schedules, work locations, or work assignments without notice, whereas in the past employees were given a notice period to rearrange their lives.

On Monday evening, union leaders emailed MMB officials and Walz’s chiefs of staff to request the administration publicly commit to “working with union representatives to swiftly and fairly address issues that may come up as a result” of this proposed order. The unions specifically requested a sentence be added to this effect, and that the administration commit to saying this in a press conference.

But all they were able to win was the addition of a vague line saying, “When circumstances allow, Minnesota Management and Budget will work in partnership with the labor unions affected by any adjustments to the provisions of collective bargaining agreements or memoranda of understanding.”

When the executive order was signed on Tuesday, union leaders largely bit their tongues. “We are thankful for the Governor’s action in authorizing this new policy specifically to address COVID-19 leave,” stated the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents employees at Minnesota’s seven state universities. Walz was elected in 2018 with strong union support, and the IFO praised the paid leave measure for “setting the standard for the rest of the nation.”

The executive directors of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees also issued a joint statement that recognized the “magnitude” of the executive order. “We won’t stand in the way of the state’s powerful response to the crisis, but we won’t idly sit by if that power is abused,” they said. The unions emphasized they had “worked with the State” to ensure the changes would be only limited to dealing with Covid-19.

In an emailed statement MMB Commissioner Myron Frans said his agency “is working in strong partnership with our union partners during this rapidly evolving emergency situation. We continue to work together with the shared goals of preventing the spread of COVID-19, keeping employees healthy, and providing critical services to the people of Minnesota.”

So far, rank-and-file members have not reacted negatively to the order — and have been focused more on the new expansive rights around paid leave, which they are happy with. Union leaders suspect the rubber will hit the road if and when cases of coronavirus ramp up in Minnesota, and working conditions start to change.

“We’re particularly concerned about things like conditions in prisons, where workers already deal with severe understaffing,” said the union source. And while their grievance procedures are technically unaffected by the executive order, the reality is the standard grievance process doesn’t move quickly enough during emergencies, meaning workers could be left without recourse in the event of employer abuse.

Some unionized state workers in California were recently threatened that their collective bargaining rights were soon to be waived too.

Ashley Payne, a state worker in Contra Costa County, one of the nine counties in the Bay Area, has been increasingly alarmed by the lack of safety protections for workers like herself who have been required to come into the office. She works in her county’s Employment and Human Services division, where she helps administer welfare.

As an elected officer for her union, SEIU Local 1021, Payne has been fielding concerns from colleagues about the lack of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and masks — including for social workers who have to do home visits.

On Wednesday, Annie Barrett, the division manager for Payne’s department, emailed staffers about working conditions under Covid-19, and said they were “exploring temporary telecommuter opportunities.” Payne forwarded the email to Jeffrey Bailey, her county’s labor relations manager, to say that while her union strongly supports this step, she wants to make it clear in writing that SEIU 1021 does not agree to making this change permanent. “We will not allow the County to exploit this crisis as a pretext for ushering in permanent changes,” she wrote. “We continue to expect timely notice of upcoming changes so we can Meet and Confer over changes to wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

In his emailed response, Bailey agreed the assignment of staff to work from home was temporary, but emphasized that things “are different” under emergency conditions (Emphasis in original).

“Furthermore,” Bailey wrote, “the state of California has informed us that the Governor intends to pass an executive order to temporarily suspend many of the provisions of the MMBA [Meyers-Milias Brown Act, the state law governing public sector collective bargaining] during this emergency period.”

Upon receiving this email, Payne reached out to her local’s leadership, who reached up the chain to the state level. Soon after Rene Bayardo, a lobbyist with SEIU California, emailed to say his team had looked into this threat, and suggested Bailey was wrong. “The indication from the [Newsom] administration is that public employers are asking to suspend MMBA but this is NOT under consideration,” Bayardo wrote.

Payne, who has worked at her job since 2014, said her employer has grown far less responsive to union concerns since the Janus v. AFSCME decision in June 2018. “Knowing what their track record is I’m not surprised they’re trying to bust the union,” she said. Rather than distancing itself from unions during the pandemic, Payne added, local government should lean into “much closer collaboration because we know our work best and we know how best to ensure safety.”

Bailey told The Intercept that he doesn’t have “any direct knowledge” of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans with respect to MMBA. “I heard about it, as we say, ‘through the grapevine,’” he wrote in an email. “This has been discussed widely among public agencies, but I don’t have any specifics or inside information. … We are all assuming that the suspension would apply to things like the meet and confer obligations and notice requirements.”

Crystal Page, a spokesperson with California’s Labor & Workforce Development Agency, said Newsom “has been clear that California needs flexibility to respond” and that he “understands the importance of collective bargaining and the need to ensure workers have a voice on the job.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara told The Intercept he hadn’t heard anything about moves to suspend collective bargaining in California, though acknowledged it is certainly not unprecedented for anti-union leaders to try and exploit crises to weaken labor.

Lichtenstein pointed to the aftermath of 9/11, when Congress created the Transportation Security Administration. Using legislative authority, a George W. Bush-appointed TSA administrator denied the 40,000 TSA workers collective bargaining rights, claiming it was necessary for national security. It wasn’t until 2011, under a new Obama appointee, that TSA workers finally won the right to bargain.

Another example was following Hurricane Katrina, when Bush unilaterally suspended federal law governing workers’ pay on federal contracts in areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Bush justified his move by calling Katrina a “national emergency” and said ignoring federal rules around construction costs “will result in greater assistance to these devastated communities.”

“People were outraged, it was just so obvious he was using it opportunistically,” said Lichtenstein. About six weeks later, in response to the backlash, the White House reversed course.

Payne said she worries that if labor-friendly California does follow Minnesota’s example, it would quickly motivate many other states to follow, particularly Republican-controlled states. “This is why I feel we have to hold the line,” she said. “If California does it, then everyone else will be like, ‘We should have been doing this a long time ago.’”

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