On a party line vote, Democrats passed a bill out of committee Monday that would codify a laundry list of protections for unions threatened by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that undermined their membership and finances.
Unions have portrayed the bill as largely a housekeeping effort that catalogs practices that are already enshrined in collective bargaining agreements and contribute to harmonious workplaces.
“HB 2016 helps us continue in the strong tradition of a cooperative relationship between government and its employees,” said Steve Demarest, the president of Service Employee International Union Local 503. “This bill will help level the playing field for those who work hard every day in public service by codifying best practices related to unfair labor practices, release time, dues collection, and access to work sites, members, and lists.”
But employer groups and union opponents say the bill is a direct reaction to last year’s decision in Janus vs. AFSCME, which ruled that public employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues or fees if they opt out of membership.
Public employee union membership and dues have declined in the wake of that decision, and anti-union activists say House Bill 2016 is a gift to the entities that have played the largest role in bankrolling and supporting Oregon’s Democratic party.
Despite objections from public employers who pointed to both practical and potential legal complications with the legislation, the House Business and Labor committee passed House Bill 2016 on a straight 7-to-4 party line vote, with all Republican members voting against the bill and with few amendments.
The bill would set in statute a number of issues that are currently the subject of collective bargaining. Cities and school districts currently bargain with unions over allowable shop steward time, with contracts specifying the number of allowable work hours spent on union business. HB 2016 would require public employers to grant “reasonable paid time” to designated union representatives to conduct union business, an open-ended commitment that employers say will remove any limits on the costs they’d have to cover.
“That’s going to end up before the employee relations board,” said Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities.
The legislation also would require public employers to deduct union dues and fees from employee pay and send those to the designated union. It would make it easier for employees to opt in, by telephone, email or in writing.
“As it is, we will not take money out unless we have a signed authorization,” said Lori Sattenspiel, legislative services director for the Oregon School Boards Association. “The (Oregon Education Association) doesn’t use telephonic authorization. We feel like we’re in the middle here, balancing the needs of our employees.”
In the meantime, the legislation makes it potentially more difficult to opt out of union membership. An authorization for deducting dues would remain in place until the employee revokes it, either in the manner specified in a bargaining agreement, or by delivering “an original signed, written statement of revocation to the headquarters of the labor organization.”
The bill provides unions with virtually unlimited access to employees’ work and personal information, including home and cellphone numbers, emails and addresses, while restricting access to that same information to other private entities. And it allows unions to use work email systems to conduct union business while prohibiting any other entity or individual from using the same systems to discourage union membership.
“That’s a serious challenge for employers,” said Winkels of the League of Oregon Cities. “There’s another statute that requires employers be neutral. How do we take action in a way that’s respects everyone’s first amendment rights?”
Margaret Kirschnick, legal counsel for Oregon AFSCME, Council 75, submitted written testimony that said none of those rights were new.
“Most public employers in Oregon currently provide exclusive representatives with reasonable access to the bargaining unit,” she wrote.
But Aaron Withe, the Oregon director for the anti-union Freedom Foundation, called the bill “a union wish list that targets our outreach efforts and attempts to provide the pro-tax, big government liberals in this state with a continued funding mechanism from the unions.”
“If unions like SEIU wouldn’t have seen such dramatic losses, then they would not be introducing this type of legislation.”
HB 2016 could come up for a floor vote in the House later this week. If passed, it would then head to the Senate.