Some U.S. states embrace pro-union laws, with key fees imperiled

By Robert Iafolla

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Anticipating a setback at the U.S. Supreme Court, several labor-friendly states passed Democratic-backed laws in recent months intended to protect a vital source of money for unions that was imperiled under a major ruling by the justices on Wednesday.

The high court ruled that non-members cannot be forced under laws in two dozen states to pay fees to unions representing public employees like teachers, police and firefighters in lieu of union dues. Union supporters had long feared such a ruling and got busy in state legislatures in advance of it to pursue laws that might blunt the effect of the decision.

At least six states have passed laws, some making it harder for non-union workers to stop paying the fees and others making it easier for unions to sign up new members, and more are expected elsewhere.

California legislators passed a measure last week that is awaiting Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s signature after putting in place other measures last year. Laws also have been enacted this year in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Washington state.

Unions typically back Democratic candidates. Of those states, only Maryland has a Republican governor, though the state leans liberal, and he allowed the legislation to become law without signing it.

Democratic New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood called the ruling a setback that should “serve as a wake up call to redouble our efforts to protect workers’ rights.”

“Here in New York, even prior to today’s decision, we passed a law that strengthens workers’ right to organize. Our office will use this law and all available avenues to protect public workers’ right to organize and promote government efficiency, labor peace and worker strength,” Underwood said.

Unions have worried that the ruling not only would deprive them of millions of dollars a year in the so-called agency fees but could drive some members to quit in order to avoid paying dues while still enjoying the benefits of contracts negotiated by union leaders.

Laws in California, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Washington state guarantee union representatives a chance to recruit new public workers after they are hired. Measures in New York, New Jersey and Hawaii restrict when non-union workers who currently pay agency fees can opt out. Laws in California, New Jersey and Washington state expand the pool of public workers eligible to join unions.

“Even in the face of this challenge, workers in California can count on our office to defend collective bargaining rights and to stand up for fair pay, workplace safety, pensions, paid sick days, healthcare services and other important protections,” California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.

Labor policy analysts expect similar laws to be considered following the ruling in other heavily Democratic states with a strong union presence like Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow with the right-leaning Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank, said the measures restricting when workers can opt out could trap non-union employees into continuing to pay the fees.

New Jersey’s law creates an annual 10-day window to opt out. Hawaii provides a 30-day window. New York gives unions the authority to set conditions for when public workers can stop paying the fees.

(Reporting by Robert Iafolla; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Will Dunham)