DeLeo: House to respond to court’s union ruling

DeLeo: House to respond to court’s union ruling

Decision bars assessments on nonunion members

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

AS LAWMAKERS MULL THE IMPACTS of a US Supreme Court ruling seen as a devastating blow to public sector labor unions, the Massachusetts House is hoping labor leaders will suggest ways the Legislature can respond and soften the blow.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Wednesday in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that public employees cannot be forced to pay fees or dues to a union to which they do not belong, a decision cheered by some as a victory for freedom of speech and decried as an attack on organized labor by others.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Wednesday that he thinks it is the “overwhelming feeling of the House that unions play an important part in terms of our workplace and that any issues that come up that could limit the role that they play could be detrimental to our economy.” He said he hopes to bring a bill responding to the Janus ruling to the House floor for a vote before formal sessions end on July 31. What that bill might look like, he said, has not yet been determined.

“Right now, we’re talking to some of the unions. We’re looking more to see if there is a consensus among all of them or at least some of them, so there may be some legislation before we break to address this issue,” DeLeo said. He added, “I think there might be some various opinions in terms of what the best avenues may be to take so we’re trying to wait and see if they can come up with some type of consensus that we could support.”

DeLeo told the Democratic Party’s convention earlier this month that the House was prepared to move quickly to make sure “unions can remain strong” if the court did not side with unions in the Janus case.

The Senate is also looking to respond to the Janus decision before the end of July. Scott Zoback, a spokesman for Senate President Harriette Chandler, said “the Senate plans on working with impacted parties, as well as the House, to address this anti-worker decision.”

The Supreme Court case challenged compulsory payment of union fees for public sector employees, regardless of whether they belong to the union. It revolved around Mark Janus, an employee of the state of Illinois who disagreed with the public sector union’s positions and refused to join.

“The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”

Unions say the case was driven by wealthy corporate interests and that the court ruling in favor of Janus would limit the power of unions.

“We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members,” Alito wrote. He added, “It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”

Writing for the four-justice minority, Justice Elana Kagan said there could be no “sugarcoating” the ruling supported by the court’s five more conservative justices and that the First Amendment was “meant not to undermine but to protect democratic governance — including over the role of public-sector unions.”

“The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law — and in its economic life — for over 40 years. As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance,” Kagan wrote. “And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.”

The Pioneer Institute, which filed a brief in the case on behalf of petitioner Mark Janus, predicted Wednesday that the ruling will have a “significant impact” on union political activity in Massachusetts, noting that 18 of the 20 political action committees that contributed the most to candidates for state and county offices were labor organizations, and 85 percent of all PAC contributions went to Democratic candidates.

“Janus will likely result in public employees having to earn membership, which translates to focusing more on issues like pay and working conditions that members care most about, and less on political activity,” Pioneer wrote in response to the Janus ruling.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which has tangled with Beacon Hill Democrats, said the Janus ruling could affect political donations to Democrats.

“The Janus decision will finally bring some equity to this situation by allowing people who disagree with the political positions of their unions to opt out of funding that speech, and by forcing union leadership to be more responsive to their members and less beholden to the Beacon Hill political elite,” the alliance said. The alliance predicted “broad implications” from the Janus ruling in Massachusetts, saying, “For nearly 40 years, a series of bureaucratic decisions and court rulings have allowed union bosses to dominate the political discourse of our country and our state.”

On a conference call Wednesday afternoon, union leaders said they were brainstorming among themselves about what a legislative response might look like.

“We’re going to all be meeting and working together to figure out what collectively,” Steve Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and a former state senator, said. “We’re going to be getting together and we’re going to be putting our heads together and work on that. It’s a good question, we’re working on it.”

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni declined to go into specifics, but said that what she and other union leaders have talked about “is really making sure that we preserve the freedom and right of every worker in Massachusetts to join a union and to be powerful within that union.”

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“There are a variety of things we’re going to look at to make sure we do that, but we are all committed to that as our goal,” she said.

Asked about possible options before the Legislature, Tolman said there are a lot of options but did not cite any specific proposals. He said, “Most importantly, we want to be able to represent our membership. It’s very clear, we want to be able to stand up and represent the membership, we want to be able to do what is right and we don’t want to let this outside money, this wealthy group to try to destroy what we have in Massachusetts.”