Pro-union bill receives big bipartisan support in House
Rep. Capano of Lynn says labor is 'on the rise'
DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS in the House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass a bill backed by all of the state’s public-sector unions that would restore some labor power that had been sapped by a controversial US Supreme Court decision.
In a 5-4 ruling last year, the court sided with Mark Janus, deciding he did not have to pay fees to AFSCME, the union that represented him and other Illinois state workers. The Janus decision created new uncertainty for the financial future of public sector unions, because it cut off one important revenue stream from non-member employees who still owed fees to unions.
The legislation the House approved on a 155-1 vote would allow unions to receive reasonable compensation when they represent non-union employees in arbitration cases and other labor disputes. That aspect of the bill was not controversial, but Republican House members tried unsuccessfully to limit the employee data that unions would receive under the legislation.
“I think it’s a fair argument to say, ‘Look, you’re not in the union. Fine. You don’t want to pay an agency fee. You don’t want to pay dues. But if the union’s going to have to represent you in a grievance or something like that, they should be able to have a reasonable fee,’” said Rep. Brad Jones, the House Republican leader, after the vote. “I think everybody bought into that.”
Reps. David LeBoeuf of Worcester and Peter Capano of Lynn both gave their inaugural floor speeches in favor of the bill’s passage.
“We are helping workers raise themselves back up and that’s why I’m proud to be part of this Legislature here,” Capano said. “Labor movement is on the rise, and we are here today to help them do that.”
In recent years, union-backed groups like Raise Up Massachusetts have nudged the Legislature toward passing bills intended to benefit workers specifically, such as increases in the minimum wage and the creation of a paid family and medical leave program.
John Drinkwater, the legislative director for the AFL-CIO, an umbrella labor group, said measures similar to what the House passed have been adopted by other states in the wake of the Janus decision and other aspects of the bill are already enshrined in labor contracts.
“A lot of this has been done in other states, post-Janus. Each provision of the bill exists in some form in some other state,” Drinkwater said. “It’s not going much farther than what other states have done.”
Although the Janus decision opens the door for more non-members to stop paying union fees while remaining covered by collective bargaining contracts, Drinkwater said there is some anecdotal evidence of the opposite happening – of non-members choosing to become dues-paying members.
The Janus decision was issued last June, roughly one month before the Legislature completed its work on major bills. After the formal session ended without a so-called Janus bill reaching the governor’s desk, AFL-CIO Massachusetts President Steve Tolman was frank about his displeasure with Speaker Robert DeLeo in particular.
On Wednesday, before the vote, DeLeo told reporters that he had made clear he wanted unanimous approval from labor unions, and it took time for all the unions to agree on an approach – with the Teamsters the last to come around.
“We were really in a real tight timeline to come together with a 100 percent unanimous consensus last year, and it just took a little bit longer to analyze the legislation and also the judicial rulings that put us in this position, and we just kept talking and kept meeting and ultimately we were able to reach a point where every single public sector union in Massachusetts is on board with what passed today,” said Drinkwater, who said by late April there was unanimous agreement from unions.
In his statement about the bill’s passage, National Association of Government Employees President David Holway praised DeLeo specifically, calling him an “ally and a friend.”
During the floor debate Wednesday, Republican members sought to diminish the amount of data that unions would have access to under the legislation, but those amendments were roundly defeated.“I understood the privacy concerns. I voted for some of the amendments. I think at the end of the day, the merits of the bill were not outweighed by those concerns,” said Jones. “As I said in caucus, I’ve been a member of the Legislature for a long time. I’ve never had anybody contact me from a public employee union and say that they felt badly about how they were being treated by the union leadership – that they thought it was unfair, they were being abused.”
Ultimately, only Rep. Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican, voted against passage of the bill. Following the vote in the House, the bill will now move to the Senate. Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t taken a firm stand for or against the bill.