New le­gal at­tack on pub­lic em­ployee unions di­vides state fur­ther

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - DAN HAAR

The charge was stark, in the head­line of a Nov. 28 ar­ti­cle by the Yan­kee In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy, a Con­necti­cut ad­vo­cacy group that op­poses the power of pub­lic em­ployee unions.

“AFSCME De­fies Janus, Tells Mem­bers They Can’t Leave.”

That would be un­con­sti­tu­tional, if true, un­der the Janus v. AFSCME de­ci­sion handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The 5-4 rul­ing rocked gov­ern­ment unions by al­low­ing any mem­ber to stop pay­ing dues, or fees, but still re­ceive the ben­e­fits of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing.

The story is a bit more lay­ered than AFSCME Coun­cil 4 in Con­necti­cut out­right block­ing mem­bers from quit­ting. It’s the next bat­tle­ground in the nev­erend­ing le­gal war over what unions can and can’t do.

AFSCME, like count­less other unions across the United States, does al­low mem­bers to quit — but they can only opt out of pay­ing monthly dues dur­ing a 30-day win­dow each year, cor­re­spond­ing with the an­niver­sary of each mem­ber’s sign­ing date.

That’s il­le­gal and un­con­sti­tu­tional un­der Janus, the Yan­kee In­sti­tute says.

It’s le­gal, fair and pru­dent fi­nan­cial man­age­ment, AFSCME union lead­ers say.

Fed­eral law­suits were filed Nov. 9 in Los An­ge­les and last Fri­day in New Mex­ico over the exit win­dows by the Lib­erty Jus­tice Cen­ter, the same con­ser­va­tive group that brought the Janus case on be­half of an Illi­nois worker. Look for a sim­i­lar law­suit at a fed­eral court near you, although a spokes­woman for the Lib­erty Jus­tice Cen­ter de­clined to say Wed­nes­day whether a case is in the works in Con­necti­cut.

Case or not, the rhetoric is as nasty as you’d ex­pect, pre­cisely as pub­lic unions pre­pare for an­other round of calls for give­backs in the first bud­get of Gov.-elect Ned La­mont. La­mont has said he won’t seek more blood from the unions, but he’s go­ing to need some magic to bal­ance the books with­out it.

“There are a lot of work­ers for Con­necti­cut’s gov­ern­ment who are poorly served by their union,” said Carol Platt Liebau, pres­i­dent of the Yan­kee

In­sti­tute. “It is now, as clearly stated in Janus, their right to de­cide whether they are be­ing served by their union and we be­lieve that if their gov­ern­ment union is serv­ing them well, it has no rea­son to set con­straints on their abil­ity to ex­er­cise the choice that they are en­ti­tled to make.”

Jody Barr, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of AFSCME Coun­cil 4, which rep­re­sents 30,000 state and mu­nic­i­pal work­ers, shot back that this lat­est at­tack based on the exit win­dows amounts to ha­rass­ment. The exit win­dow ap­plies to em­ploy­ees who signed cards over the last three years as AFSCME pre­pared for a loss in the Janus case — cards that spelled out the yearly exit rules.

It’s like join­ing Ama­zon Prime, he said — you can’t get the free ship­ping in De­cem­ber and then quit in Jan­uary; it’s an an­nual mem­ber­ship that al­lows the union to plan.

”All they’re try­ing to do is weaken the voice,” Barr said of the Yan­kee In­sti­tute, which has reached out to

pub­lic em­ploy­ees in Con­necti­cut to make sure they know they can quit with­out ram­i­fi­ca­tions. “It’s tak­ing away work­ers’ rights and abil­i­ties to ad­vo­cate to­gether and have a sin­gle voice… It’s at­tack­ing the mid­dle class.”

He con­tin­ued, ”Why would rich, well-funded groups want to do this?”

Liebau says the mar­ket forces all sorts of com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions, much smaller than AFSCME (the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, County and Mu­nic­i­pal Em­ploy­ees), to adapt to chang­ing cus­tomer be­hav­ior.

The Yan­kee In­sti­tute says it’s look­ing out for work­ers’ rights against in­ef­fec­tive unions, and at the same time, try­ing to rein in overly rich pay and ben­e­fits pack­ages. That raises a ques­tion that Barr asked — which is it? Are the unions too in­ef­fec­tive, or too ef­fec­tive?

It’s both, Liebau said. “Mak­ing an agree­ment that helps one group of peo­ple to the detri­ment of our state’s well-be­ing isn’t a ben­e­fit to any­one in the long run. Our civil ser­vants...are the ones who would be hurt the most if we were

to get to the point where the state couldn’t meet its obli­ga­tions.”

For now, the num­bers are tiny, Barr said. So far, af­ter more than five months, just 72 union mem­bers out of the 30,000 have opted out fully. An­other 23, he said, are now wait­ing for their 30-day win­dows to come around.

So the stake is just a round­ing er­ror in the AFSCME Coun­cil 4 bud­get of $10 mil­lion or so. That’s all the more rea­son the union should just let them out, Liebau said.

Other unions in Con­necti­cut, in­clud­ing some lo­cals of AFT, for ex­am­ple, also use exit win­dows. It’s a credit to the unions that the is­sue isn’t larger. Gen­er­ally, when the year shakes out, we will see the unions re­tain well over 95 per­cent of their mem­bers, in AFSCME’s case, per­haps 97 per­cent, Barr said.

More than 1,000 pre­vi­ously un­signed em­ploy­ees have signed cards, with more sign­ing ev­ery day.

”The 96 per­cent of our mem­bers that are still pay­ing dues, they are more ed­u­cated now and they are more united,” Barr said. “It showed in the last elec­tion.

We got our mem­bers ed­u­cated about how to vote.”

Speak­ing of the elec­tions, the unions say no po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is fi­nanced by reg­u­lar mem­bers’ dues; that comes from sep­a­rate, vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions and in-kind work. And of course, the unions and their sup­port­ers have huge power in the state Capi­tol.

As for the case, the Janus de­ci­sion is mum on ex­actly how unions must al­low mem­bers to quit and whether exit win­dows are le­gal. I’d guess the unions will lose be­cause it’s about a right, not a com­mer­cial trans­ac­tion such as Ama­zon mem­ber­ship.

But the broader is­sue is, this lat­est round is part of a pat­tern of anti-union at­tacks that’s di­vid­ing the two sides widely. I re­ceived an email this week from a state worker, who’s not alone, who said he’d quit if his lead­er­ship of­fered more give­backs.

Sud­denly, the unions have a fi­nan­cial stake in hold­ing to a hard line.

Barr said AFSCME has al­ways an­swered to the rank-and-file. “I’m very aware of my role as rep­re­sent­ing our mem­bers and I work for them.”

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