This story was published on June 22, 2018, five days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against unions in the Janus case.
Russell Judd didn’t know it, but a key point in his contract talks with workers at his Bakersfield hospital would be settled by lawmakers 300 miles away in Sacramento.
A union-backed provision in a budget bill on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk blocked his attempt to gradually break the Kern County Hospital Authority from public employee pensions, undercutting Judd’s bid to shift them to 401(k)-style retirement plans.
Judd said he didn’t see it coming. The union on the other side of the table, Service Employees International Union Local 521, said it reached out to Capitol power brokers because it didn't want to leave workers in limbo with an uncertain retirement plan.
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Judd “didn’t know who he was dealing with with SEIU,” said SEIU California lobbyist Terry Brennand.
SEIU’s pension power play was one of several measures that found their way into late state budget negotiations in an annual ritual where labor lobbyists take a shortcut in securing union-friendly policies without having to carry bills through a full legislative session.
Most of the labor measures in the new budget aim to strengthen unions as they prepare to lose money and members in the wake of a looming Supreme Court decision that would forbid them from collecting so-called fair-share fees from workers who benefit from them but don’t want to join them. A decision in the case, Janus vs. AFSCME, is expected in days.
“Unions are trying to circumvent the court decision before its even handed down,” said Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Mackinac Center, which runs campaigns to discourage public employees from joining unions.
'Talk to the union about it'
The budget bill includes new rules that govern how employers talk about unions and compel public agencies to respect union preferences in collecting dues, potentially helping them hold onto members if the court makes a ruling against labor.
Another item requires employers to negotiate with unions if they want to communicate with workers about their right to join or not join a union.
"If you are going to tell your employees about union rights, talk to the union about it," Caitlin Vega, a senior lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, said at a budget hearing.
In most cases, the provisions put in state law are practices that cities and school districts already use. It's common for government agencies to defer to unions on questions of whether a worker properly joins or separates from a labor organization, for instance. Union advocates say the new provisions bring clarity to labor law and could improve relations between workers and their bosses.
"It’s good for overall human relations. It’s good for worker productivity. You start from that perspective that this is something that we as a state value and all of the things here are basic measures to make sure the state can continue to get the greatest benefit from it public employee relations law," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center.
Still, lobbyists for local governments and school districts opposed the inclusion of new labor laws in the state budget. They noted that putting the new standards in law strips them of a potential bargaining point in a future contract, and gives labor an even bigger influence over workers.
"We feel this bill significantly changes the employer-employee relationship," Jason Murphy, a lobbyist for the University of California system, said at the budget hearing.
'Public business that no one can know about'
Last year, unions flexed their muscles in the budget to win a law that guarantees them access to new public employees. It also forbids agencies from releasing personal information about public employees to any outside organization, except a union.
This time, the budget bill includes an item that bans public agencies from disclosing information about the time and location of new employee orientations. Unions wanted it because the access to new workers they won in last year's budget came with a requirement that government agencies notify them ahead of new employee meetings, creating a public record that potentially could be requested by an outside organization.
The measure mirrors a bill that Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, carried this year. Cooper argued it was essential to protect employees from harm, but critics said it seemed intended to prevent anti-union activists from picketing public offices.
Nikki Moore, a lobbyist for the California News Publishers Association, said Cooper’s bill created a “public rule about public businesses that no one can know about.”
At a hearing earlier this month, Cooper and a union lobbyist could not identify an example of a public worker being harmed at an employee orientation. They turned questioning from Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, into a discussion about the December 2015 massacre at a public employee Christmas party in San Bernardino.
Cooper at the hearing said it might not be “a bad idea in this day an age” to ban disclosing information about public employee holiday parties.
'It's almost got me speechless'
Judd, the Bakersfield hospital director, didn't know the state budget would upend his contract talks until the week the Legislature voted on it. By then, it was too late for him to find allies in the Capitol and undo the provision requiring the Kern County Hospital Authority to continue enrolling new employees in a public pension plan.
“It’s almost got me speechless that SEIU would run this back deal to the Legislature and the Legislature would listen to the labor organization” without calling the employer, Judd said.
Their conflict dates to a 2014 law that tried to save the Kern Medical Center, a county-run hospital that was in dire financial straits. The law allowed Kern County to split the hospital from the county government and to create an independent hospital.
A 2015 law specified that the hospital authority would continue to pay health and pension benefits for its employees during the transition from county government to the new entity. The authority made a two-year deal with SEIU 521 in 2016 to keep pay and benefits steady.
Since then, SEIU's Brennand said, the new hospital authority didn't reach out to begin contract talks until the deal nearly expired. Brennand said the union learned from the pension plan, the Kern County Employee Retirement Association, that Judd wanted to enroll new workers in 401(k) plans.
That's when he went to the Legislature instead of the bargaining table.
"They never intended to bargain in good faith," Brennand said. "You don’t go to a negotiation with a preconceived outcome."
The bill reached Brown on June 20 and he must sign or veto it by July 2.