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Legislature unable to push through union-friendly bill

Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo (center).
Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo (center).(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2018)

After the US Supreme Court dealt public-sector unions a body blow in June, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo hoped to whisk labor-friendly legislation addressing the high court’s “Janus ruling” to a floor vote before lawmakers adjourned July 31.

Easier said than done.

The Senate did pass a “Janus fix” in the 11th hour on Tuesday night. But time ran out before the House could take it on. Lawmakers only hold informal sessions for the rest of 2018, when controversial items are usually on hold because one person can block a bill. DeLeo may have to wait until formal sessions resume in January.

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At stake is public-sector unions’ ability to collect money from government workers who opt not to become members. Until the Janus decision, these unions in Massachusetts and many other states could gather “agency fees” from nonmembers to help cover costs, although not for political work. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, took that right away.

Senator Joseph Boncore, who shepherded the latest Senate bill, argued that strong unions can reduce income inequality and help contract negotiations go more smoothly by minimizing competing voices at the table.

But crafting a Janus fix supported by the vast majority of public unions and able to withstand a legal challenge could be tricky.

Boncore says his bill pulls that off by allowing unions to represent nonmembers for grievances, arbitration hearings, and the like, and to charge directly just for those costs. Unions would also be able to provide additional services or benefits to members, possibly spurring more people to join.

Union critics such as the right-leaning Pioneer Institute and the National Federation of Independent Business cheered the Janus ruling — and worry what the Legislature might do next.

Public-sector unions already dominate fund-raising for political candidates in Massachusetts and can easily get audiences with legislative leaders. The ballot questions to raise the minimum wage and create a new family leave program, resolved in the recent “Grand Bargain” negotiations with business groups? They were largely financed by public unions.

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The Janus decision may not directly apply to the private sector. But you can’t blame businesses and their advocates for paying attention to its impact here.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.