California's public employee unions are backing a pack of bills that might help them hold on to members if the Supreme Court this summer issues a ruling that’s expected to deliver a serious blow to the finances for labor organizations.
Two of the bills lay out standard guidelines governing how public agencies collect dues from union members. Both give unions time to call workers and try to change the minds of those who want to stop paying dues.
One of the bills would require local governments to grant time off to union shop stewards. It requires the unions to reimburse government agencies, but local government lobbyists still have concerns about it.
Another, Assembly Bill 2970, would prohibit government agencies from publicly disclosing information about new employee orientations.
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The bill’s author, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, says he wants to shield public employees from workplace violence, but it’s raising concerns that the proposal is really intended to prevent anti-union activists from distributing information outside gatherings for public employees.
Already, anti-union activists from the Freedom Foundation are showing up outside public employee orientation events in Los Angeles County to distribute information to workers.
Cooper’s bill would block public agencies from disclosing the dates of the orientation events, limiting the Freedom Foundation’s ability to contact workers at those events.
“It just seems like a bill targeted at squelching political speech and doing so without any good justification,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
This year’s group of public employee organizing bills follows a similar cluster of legislation a year ago that gave labor some extra muscle as it prepares for a Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, the lawsuit that aims to forbid public employee unions from collecting so-called fair share fees from workers who are represented by them but do not want to belong to them.
A lot to lose
Unions expect the court will side with Mark Janus, the Illinois state worker who filed the lawsuit. It would end a 41-year precedent that permitted public employee unions to collect fair share fees in the interest of ensuring that workers who benefit from representation don’t get a “free ride” at the expense of other members.
California unions have a lot to lose. Fair share fees typically are almost equal to full dues, and workers who don’t want to belong to unions would save hundreds of dollars a year by breaking with them.
Last year, the Legislature adopted a measure that requires public agencies to give unions time to meet with workers at some point during new employee orientation.
Many California public agencies already allowed unions to have that access; the new law ensures labor groups won’t lose it.
The law requires agencies to give unions a 10-day notice when they hold orientation events for new employees.
Caitlin Vega, a senior lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, told lawmakers at an April hearing that the notice might become a public record that could lead to unintended parties attending orientation sessions.
That could include “parties that have objections with public employees, with law enforcement, with unions, with any of that,” she said. “This is an internal meeting, and our intent with this is simply to keep advance notice internal.”
Cooper, a former Sacramento County deputy sheriff, argues AB 2970 is necessary to protect the safety and privacy of new public workers. “It is imperative that we protect our new public employees attending orientation by only providing advance notice to pertinent parties,” he said at the committee hearing.
The bill cleared the Assembly by a 52-18 vote and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.
Its only opposition came from lobbyists representing cities, counties, school districts and special service districts. They’re worried that if the law is read literally, they won’t be able to hire private sector experts to give new employees training on workplace standards.
“We also think it’s maybe not the appropriate response. We don’t think it’s necessary by any means,” said Dorothy Johnson, a lobbyist for the California State Association of Counties.
Anti-union activists gearing up
The Freedom Foundation, which runs campaigns encouraging West Coast workers to quit their unions, says Cooper’s bill could inhibit the organization’s ability to provide information to public employees.
“If we’re not allowed to know where they are, we don’t know who’s working,” said Sam Han, its California director.
His organization is eager to contact union members about the looming Supreme Court case. It recently sent a message to 50,000 California teachers that described to them the steps they’d have to take to quit the California Teachers Association. It contacted them through their public email addresses.
Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition likened Cooper’s proposals to a wave of bills in state legislatures that would have criminalized protests like the one led by Native Americans that delayed construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in the Upper Midwest.
“You see these targeted efforts that have some window dressing justification but really are aimed at stopping a kind of speech that the bill’s supporters don’t like, and that’s problematic,” he said.
Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, called the Freedom Foundation messages “spamming” of public employees. The union has not endorsed Cooper’s bill, but it favors his intent.
“When employees are in an orientation setting, they’re given the time with the employer to discuss employment matters from insurance to vacation leave, health insurance, disabilities. You have employment policies being discussed, safety measures, and those are matters that should be discussed between the employer and the employee and that shouldn’t be open to anyone other than those involved,” she said.
Three more bills
The other bills moving forward that would help unions recruit and retain members are:
Senate Bill 1085 by Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. It would require local agencies to grant leave to union shop stewards and to guarantee their jobs. Skinner’s bill says unions must reimburse government agencies, but local government lobbyists remain concerned that cities and counties will lose money.
Assembly Bill 1937 by Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles. It requires agencies to adhere to the terms of union dues collection agreements. Often, public employees can separate from their unions only during a certain time of year.
Assembly Bill 2049 by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego. It sets a process for classified school employees to join and separate from their unions. It gives the union five days to review a request to separate and potentially try to retain the member. It’s in line with how schools process union-related requests from teachers. “It makes it clean for everyone,” said Jai Sookprasert, lobbyist for the California School Employees Association. “Here’s somebody who wants to be out of the union, here’s the process. That’s clarified.”