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A year after Supreme Court ruling, Mass. House to vote on bill to boost unions

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the House will vote Wednesday on legislation that would allow public sector labor groups to bill nonmembers for certain “reasonable” fees.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the House will vote Wednesday on legislation that would allow public sector labor groups to bill nonmembers for certain “reasonable” fees.Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

The Massachusetts House is moving to strengthen the hand of organized labor, nearly a year after the Supreme Court dealt it a major financial and a symbolic setback by ruling that public sector workers who opt to not join unions can’t be required to pay collective bargaining fees.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the chamber will vote Wednesday on legislation that would allow public sector labor groups to bill nonmembers for certain “reasonable” fees.

“The [Supreme Court’s] Janus decision was looked at as a blow,” DeLeo said Monday. “We wanted to send a message here in Massachusetts in response to that decision.”

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This week’s vote marks a major step for a bill that has helped fuel unusual tension between the Democratic-controlled House and normally friendly labor groups. After a Senate-approved version of the bill stalled in the House in July, frustrated labor groups withheld endorsements and donations from virtually all House Democrats.

DeLeo said the House didn’t take up the legislation last year because he felt it lacked a broad enough consensus among labor groups. “Now,” he said, “I think everybody’s on board.”

The House bill teed up for Wednesday is largely similar to what the Senate supported last year, including allowing labor groups to charge nonmembers for representation during arbitration and grievances.

On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker indicated his general support for legislation to address the Supreme Court decision.

The measure’s intent, according to lawmakers and supporters, is to ensure that labor groups are able to recoup what can be costly legal fees. It could also begin soothing rankled labor leaders who feel that Democrats haven’t moved quickly enough to address their priorities.

“Our frustration was not getting a return on investment when you give to politicians,” said Louis Antonellis, business manager of IBEW Local 103, which announced in January that it was withholding donations from state legislators, in part, because the bill didn’t pass last session.

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“I hope they get the message loud and clear and that they’re going to do better,” he said. “This is a great first step and a start.”

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring nonmembers to pay so-called agency fees violates public workers’ free-speech rights. The 5-4 decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees overturned a 40-year-old precedent and quickly reverberated through labor circles, where many feared it would undercut unions’ clout and financial support.

Private workers cannot be required to join a union and pay membership dues. But 22 states, including Massachusetts, had allowed public employee unions to charge nonmembers a discounted rate, known as an agency fee or a fair-share fee, to cover collective bargaining costs before the Janus decision.

In Massachusetts, concerns that the ruling could drain unions of dues-paying members never materialized: Overall union membership in 2018 was at the highest in nearly a decade, federal statistics show.

The House legislation carves out other allowances for unions, including giving labor officials time during lunches and other breaks to speak with employees at work; ensuring union officials have time to meet with newly hired employees; and codifying that union representatives can use public e-mail accounts to communicate with members. Those e-mails would be exempt from the public records law, should the bill pass.

The bill also says that public unions may have access to employees’ personal information, including their personal e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers, but they wouldn’t be made public.

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The provisions are “necessary to make the system go,” said Representative Paul Brodeur, the House chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which backed the legislation.

“I think people are starting to recognize that they value that protection [a union provides] and they need that protection,” the Melrose Democrat said.

Critics say the bill appears to undermine key protections embodied in the Janus decision, notably that public employees are free to disassociate from a union if they choose.

Chris Carlozzi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, also objected to the provision giving the “private information for public workers” to union officials, saying his group fears unions will use it with high-pressure tactics to convince workers to join or stay in unions.

He pointed to DeLeo’s remarks last month, accusing the Massachusetts Teachers Association of engaging in “juvenile tactics” during a rally. “Imagine what they’ll do to someone who might want to opt out of the union,” Carlozzi said.

Yet the Massachusetts Legislature is far from alone in seeking to soften the court decision. After it, several states made legislative moves, including California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, and Washington.

The laws have taken various approaches. In Rhode Island, for instance, the governor signed legislation that empowered police unions to stop representing nonunion employees in grievance proceedings. California, Maryland, and Washington enacted laws that seek to help union representatives pitch union membership to new hires.

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Brodeur said the House legislation, which mirrors a bill filed by Senator Joseph Boncore, sought to work within the “four corners” the Janus ruling provides, including billing for the direct cost of handling grievances.

“We’re making every effort to thread that needle,” Brodeur said.

After the Supreme Court ruled, DeLeo said last June that he hoped to take up a bill to “soften the blow” before the two-year legislative session ended. But even after the Senate passed its version at the 11th hour, it never reached the House floor, frustrating labor officials, who have longed supported the State House’s Democratic supermajority.

In addition to the IBEW stopping donations, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO withheld endorsements from nearly all House incumbents, in part because of the lack of movement on Janus-related legislation.

“There was a lot of frustration, no doubt. But you know what, that’s the past,” Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said Monday. “We’re working with them on this bill, and I think it’s a very good bill.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com.