Amid Conservative Assault on Organized Labor, Democratic Lawmakers Are Advancing Laws to Expand Workers’ Rights

Originally published in The Intercept on August 5, 2019.
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PUBLIC-SECTOR EMPLOYEES IN states with Democratic majorities have made significant legislative gains in recent months, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCMEwhich found that unions could no longer collect bargaining fees from workers who do not pay membership dues.

More than 22,000 state workers in Nevada and Delaware gained the right to collectively bargain this year thanks to recently passed legislation. Colorado, home to more than 26,000 state employees, is expected to follow suit next year.

With Nevada and Delaware’s new legislation, passed this summer, there are now 26 states that recognize state employee bargaining rights, as do Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. Twenty-four states either outright prohibit collective bargaining or do not authorize meaningful bargaining, such as Wisconsin, which heavily curtailed the ability of public-sector employees to negotiate in 2011.

On the federal level, congressional representatives are also working to bolster the rights of public-sector workers, though any chance of enacting legislation is highly unlikely unless Democrats win the White House and the Senate and maintain their hold on the House of Representatives in 2020. On June 25, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., reintroduced the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would, for the first time, set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights for the nation’s 17.3 million public employees. Among other things, public employees would be required to recognize their workers’ unions if they’re “freely chosen” by a majority vote, and employers would be required to bargain with workers over wages, hours, and other terms of employment. If public employers refuse, then the legislation grants the federal government the authority to intervene.

The bill is backed by 2020 presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker.

This legislative push comes as organized labor was bracing for the worst following the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which was expected to significantly deplete union coffers. In its 5-4 decision, the court struck down more than four decades of legal precedent and concluded that unions could no longer collect payments from non-dues-paying members in exchange for collective bargaining services. This opened the door not only for nonmembers to stop paying fees, but also for union members themselves to opt out altogether.

While the full extent of Janus’s blow to the labor movement may not be felt for several years, at a labor conference in February, public-sector union leaders said the first year’s impact had been less devastating to membership than expected. AFSCME President Lee Saunders said that while his union had lost 100,000 agency-fee payers since the court’s June decision, they had also managed to flip 310,000 agency-fee payers into dues-paying members. “For every member that we lost, we gained seven,” Saunders declared. Other unions reported relatively minimal losses, like the American Federation of Teachers, which lost 84,500 agency-fee payers after Janus, but also gained 88,000 new members between November 2017 and November 2018.

Still, many experts say the drop-off in membership could happen slowly, rather than an immediately significant decline. Michigan, which became a right-to-work state in 2012, has lost nearly 130,000 union members over the last seven years, or 16 percent of union membership. This year, Michigan unions have reported at least $20 million less in revenue than they did in 2012.

There’s also the risk that unions will have trouble recruiting new members moving forward. Mike Antonucci, a teachers union analyst, said recently that “current members are unlikely to resign in any great numbers. Over time, however, they will retire. The burden will be on the unions to recruit new members in the same percentages as they enjoyed pre-Janus.” The National Education Association saw a 0.5 percent increase in its membership compared to the year before, Antonucci found; however, New York accounted for 80 percent of that nationwide growth. By contrast, 10 state affiliates saw membership drops of 3 percent or more, including North Carolina, which saw a 6.8 percent drop in 2018.

IN THE FACE of the conservative assault on organized labor, workers and lawmakers in blue states are experimenting with new laws and forms of organizing to make it easier to unionize and negotiate on the job.

In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, signed a bill in June granting Nevada’s more than 20,000 state workers the right to collectively bargain, a right they’ve been denied since 1965. Sisolak, who was elected in 2018, pledged in his first State of the State address in February to get this legislation passed. His election placed the state government fully in Democratic control for the first time since 1992.

According to AFSCME, the legislation marks the largest expansion of collective bargaining for state workers anywhere in the country in the past 16 years. It benefits a broad swath of workers, including nurses, caretakers, and correction officers.

Conservative opponents of the bill argued that granting collective bargaining rights to state workers would hurt taxpayers and Nevada’s budget, even though there is little empirical evidence in support of that assertion. Local government workers in Nevada have been able to collectively bargain since 1969.

According to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, state employees in Nevada earn between 1 and 13 percent less than their private-sector peers in total compensation, and their health care benefits are less generous compared to state workers in other parts of the country. Workers who advocated in Carson City for the legislation, however, went to great lengths to say that it was not just about wages and benefits, but also things like working conditions and safety. Rick McCann, head of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers, said for example that now his members can bargain over things like body-worn cameras and dashcams.

In order to get the bill passed, Nevada workers had to make some concessions. The legislation includes an amendment that grants lawmakers and the governor the final say over things like pay raises, regardless of what the workers negotiate. Compromises like this are common for public-sector unions. Still, labor leaders say that even having a seat at the table will be a huge step forward, and they will push for improvements to the law in the years ahead, if necessary.

Workers saw similar success this year in Delaware, where Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a bill in June granting collective bargaining rights to more than 2,000 state employees.

Since signing the law, state workers in Delaware have already begun to organize new unions. In late July, 340 workers at the Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles voted to form a union for the first time. They are joining Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1029. Additionally, according to Michael Begatto, executive director of Council 81 AFSCME AFL-CIO in Delaware, dietary workers at the Delaware Veterans Home just voted to join AFSCME, and workers at the Office of the State Fire Marshal recently filed for an election.

Delaware Democrats have had a governing trifecta since 2009, but in the past, state workers faced “a reluctance” by some lawmakers and individuals in the executive office, Begatto said, noting that Gov. John Carney’s election in 2016 worked in their favor. “They balked at being able to go to the table as equals with workers,” he said. “This governor was more understanding; without him, this would not have happened.”

Unions in the state saw less of a decline in membership post-Janus than they had been expecting. “We were pleasantly surprised, as we were expecting a 20 to 25 percent reduction,” Begatto said. “Out of 7,000 members, we had only about 180 members opt-out.”

COLORADO WILL LIKELY be the next state to expand bargaining rights to state employees.

In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers in Colorado came close to achieving collective bargaining rights for its roughly 26,500 state employees, but the bill came to a halt because Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who was elected last year, said he wanted more time to figure out how it would work in practice. In 2007, Colorado’s then-Democratic governor issued an executive order giving state workers the right to form a union, but not to collectively bargain. This bill would have codified and expanded that order.

Hilary Glasgow, executive director of Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions, the state employee union, told The Intercept that she’s confident the bill will be passed in the next session.

“We know Governor Polis believes in collective bargaining, so where we’re at is him needing to understand all the ins and outs of what this means and how it can benefit not only the state and state employees, but also the citizens we serve in Colorado,” she said. “We’re going to be meeting regularly, as much as it takes, as often as it takes, to get to a place where we can introduce a bill on the first day of the next session that the governor and the union are behind.”

Glasgow and Polis released a joint statement at the end of April pledging to “enter into discussions to address outstanding issues surrounding House Bill 1273 and other issues affecting the state workforce and the people of Colorado that cannot be resolved in the few remaining days that exist in the legislative session.” The statement adds that “we are confident that we will successfully resolve these outstanding issues before the 2020 legislative session.”

Polis’s office declined to comment beyond the April statement.

Glasgow said collective bargaining rights are an important factor in addressing the state’s staffing crisis, which has escalated since 2009. A report published by the Economic Analysis and Research Network, a Colorado WINS partner, finds over the last decade that turnover among state employees increased by 73 percent. Colorado’s Department of Personnel reported last June that roughly one in every five positions in the state government was vacant. The high number of vacancies can place additional strain and responsibility on the workers who remain. A number of research studies support the idea that collective bargaining can help to reduce employee turnover.

“We’re seeing a steady decline in state workers and an alarming increase in vacancies,” Glasgow said. “We’re running roughly 10 percent behind the private sector on their total compensation plan, and what I think people don’t understand about state services is that a lot of them are highly dangerous behind-the-scenes work. There is expertise at the front-line level that can inform how they do their work in a way that makes it safer and better.”

The push for collective bargaining, Glasgow said, is rooted in a desire to make sure that this firsthand knowledge is taken seriously. “Workers need to have a venue to have those conversations so changes in their workplace can actually be implemented,” she said. “Right now, you’re at the benevolence of the governor and the cabinet as to whether they’ll hear you out.”

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