The State Worker

Get a state job and meet your labor rep: How state budget protects California unions

New California government workers will hear from union representatives almost as soon as they start their jobs under a state budget provision bolstering labor groups as they prepare for court decisions that may cut into their membership and revenue.

Unions would gain mandatory access to new employee orientation sessions in schools, cities and in state government through one of two labor-friendly provisions that lawmakers inserted into the state budget last week without much debate.

The second provision bans public agencies from releasing the personal email addresses of government workers, creating a new exemption in the California Public Records Act. Those email addresses are basic information that could be used in anti-union campaigns.

Both measures were discussed by the Legislature last year, but dropped when the Supreme Court deadlocked on a lawsuit that would have banned unions from collecting fees from workers who don’t want to join labor groups.

That stalemate left in place California’s practice of allowing unions to charge fair-share fees to workers who benefit from representation, but don’t pay full dues.

Now, two more so-called right-to-work lawsuits are jockeying to reach the Supreme Court where newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch may tip the balance against fair-share fees.

“We may get a decision that eliminates various forms of union security that prevent free riders, so we’re trying to find an alternate message,” said David Rosenfeld, a Bay Area labor attorney.

The measure inviting unions to participate in new employee orientation will give labor groups an opportunity to make their case just as workers begin their jobs.

Many public agencies already allow unions to brief new workers. The budget bill would make that a standard practice across the state.

Its supporters cast it as way to ensure that public employees are well informed about their rights, and about the general workplace environment of their new offices.

“We want a better-trained and well-informed workforce,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who carried the bill last year. “It really wasn’t about the unions so much as it was just an orientation.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration favored the measure, which allows government agencies to negotiate with unions over what kind of access labor groups would have to new employee orientation sessions.

Republicans voted against the provision at budget hearings over the past week.

“I don’t think the unions need to be involved in orientation. It’s that simple,” said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. “It’ll be a rare day when I vote for a bill that gives (unions) some kind of advantage.”

The second provision adds the personal email addresses of public employees to a list of privacy exemptions in the California Public Records Act. The exemption is to be included in an existing law that compels public agencies to disclose that information to union representatives.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System has received public records requests seeking personal information about its beneficiaries, including their personal email addresses. CalPERS has denied those requests, said spokesman Wayne Davis.

Open government advocates at the First Amendment Coalition and the California Newspaper Publishers Association were surprised to see the provision surface.

They’d watched a similar provision move forward last year and stalled it. They wanted to wait for a decision from the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit that argued that the public should have access to emails and text messages that public officials send from personal devices if the content is relevant to their work in government.

In March, the Supreme Court sided with open records advocates in holding that those records are public even if they’re sent from personal devices.

Last year, the publishers’ group opposed the privacy exemption for public employee email addresses. That information, said Jim Ewert, general counsel, might have helped citizens piece together important information that public officials attempt to hide by working from personal devices.

“This year, unbeknownst to me, this language just appeared and I’m not sure how that happened,” he said.

Now, with the state Supreme Court ruling favoring access to the content of those messages, Ewert says the actual email addresses are less important. The ruling requires public agencies to search personal devices and email accounts for information that could be relevant to citizen watchdogs and the new legislation does not contradict the court decision.

“I don’t think it would render a substantial or significant amount of public records inaccessible because it makes clear that if the email is used for public business, it’s subject to disclosure,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “It probably in the broad scope of things doesn’t do great harm.”

Fair-share fees top 99 percent of full dues at some unions. If they’re banned, an anti-union group might solicit union members with messages telling them they could have the benefits of union representation without paying union dues, according to union advocates.

Paul Secunda, director of the Labor Law Employment Program at Marquette University, said other Democratic-leaning states might adopt similar measures if the Supreme Court one day strikes down fair-share fees.

“I think you’ll see that in more progressive states similar types of innovative laws to try to soften the blow potentially of one these types of cases,” Secunda said.

Twenty-eight states have so-called right-to-work laws with Kentucky and Missouri becoming the most recent ones to ban fair-share fees.

Moorlach and Assemblyman Matt Harper, R-Huntington Beach, submitted a right-to-work bill to the Legislature this year. It died in committee. At an April hearing, they argued that fair-share fees undermine the free speech rights of workers who disagree with the political stances of California’s Democratic-leaning unions.

“You have a First Amendment problem,” Samuel Han, California director for the Freedom Foundation, a group that wants to break the “stranglehold” of public sector unions.

Union membership has declined somewhat in states that recently blocked mandatory union fees, but it has not plummeted. Michigan, for instance, became a right-to-work state in 2013 and union membership has edged down from 16.3 percent of the state’s workforce to 14.4 percent of workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Indiana banned fair-share fees in 2012 and union membership has increased there from 9.1 percent of the state’s workforce that year to 10.4 percent in 2016.

The right-to-work laws are “a stumbling block, but labor isn’t going anywhere,” Secunda said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at