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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Bill nearing finish line on Beacon Hill would soften blow of high court’s ruling on union dues

Massachusetts State House.
Massachusetts State House.(PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)

The US Supreme Court undercut a major source of union funding a year ago.

But on labor-friendly Beacon Hill, a “fix” for that court decision is nearing the finish line.

The Massachusetts House and Senate whisked a measure to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk last week that would allow unions for government employees to be reimbursed for arbitration and grievance work they perform on behalf of nonmembers. The roll-call votes in both Democrat-controlled chambers were nearly unanimous.

Baker said he expects to decide on the bill by the end of this week. The Republican governor said he has no qualms with its main objective, but has concerns about “privacy issues that were raised by some of the intrusive elements of that law.”

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Baker was referring to a provision that would give unions access to workers’ personal e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers. In letters to Baker calling for a veto, the National Federation of Independent Business and the right-leaning Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance criticized that aspect of the bill, in particular.

If Baker balks, overriding him should be a cinch in the Legislature. It’s all but certain this matter will be resolved before lawmakers head off to vacationland in August.

That would be a big relief to union leaders. After all, state legislators couldn’t pull it off a year ago.

At the time, the Janus decision was still fresh: The Supreme Court in June 2018 ruled that “agency fees”, a percentage of full union dues, essentially violated workers’ First Amendment rights. Until then, public-sector unions in Massachusetts and at least 20 other states could have these fees deducted from nonmembers’ paychecks, ostensibly to cover the costs incurred by representing them. The Supremes, in a 5-4 vote, made that practice illegal.

State lawmakers then vowed to push through a Janus workaround, but had only one month to do so before formal sessions ended for the year. The Senate passed a bill, similar to the one that’s before Baker now, but not the House. Time simply ran out.

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The president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, Steve Tolman, was particularly upset. Flash-forward a year, and Tolman is praising the Legislature for getting a Janus fix done.

John Drinkwater, Tolman’s legislative director, says many public-sector contracts already give union leaders access to nonmembers’ personal contact information. Because the unions have a duty to represent all employees covered by a particular contract, he says, they need to be able to reach nonmembers to be effective.

Drinkwater says he hasn’t heard of Janus causing a major revenue problem, at least not yet, in Massachusetts. Several unions stepped up their organizing efforts, he says, to persuade nonmembers to become dues-paying workers.

Senator Joe Boncore, one of the bill’s main sponsors, says the Supreme Court “weaponized the First Amendment” by using it to attack unions. This Massachusetts measure, Boncore says, is among the strongest such state responses to Janus in the country, compared to bills passed in at least half a dozen other states. He says the Massachusetts bill does address privacy concerns; it exempts the personal contact information from public records requests.

That’s not enough for Chris Carlozzi, who leads the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. He worries that unions could end up using all those cellphone numbers and e-mails to badger public workers to join.

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What is Carlozzi’s group doing anyway, opposing this bill? After all, the NFIB’s members are small businesses, not public agencies. But Carlozzi says the public-sector unions’ clout here has become a private-sector concern. Witness the state’s planned increases in the minimum wage and a newly adopted program of paid family and medical leave — not to mention a proposed tax on high earners that is advancing. Carlozzi cites all three in his letter to Baker.

Carlozzi’s concerns are shared by others in the business community. But none of the biggest local business groups spoke up to Baker about this, as the NFIB did.

You can’t blame Carlozzi if he’s worried about union clout: The latest federal statistics show that union membership in Massachusetts, among public- and private-sector employers, rose 16 percent last year from 2017.

Rather than weaken unions here, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision may have had the opposite effect — by prompting them to rally behind a new cause.


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