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Beacon Hill’s (mostly) sensible fix to a bad labor law

Stop and Shop workers and supporters marched in a picket line at the Stop and Shop South Bay Plaza’s entrance during a rally organized by UFCW Union members at the Stop and Shop in Dorchester on April 18.JOSEPH PREZIOSO /AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Last year the Supreme Court created a big headache for states like Massachusetts by taking away a tool that they have used for decades to ensure public sector labor unions are fairly compensated for work they provide for nonmembers. Now Beacon Hill legislators have come up with a new system, in a (mostly) sensible bill that’s sailing through the Legislature.

No teacher, firefighter, police officer, or other public employee has to join their union. But the union still has to negotiate labor contracts on behalf of all workers. And they may be called on to represent workers in grievances, too. To cover the cost of those services, unions in Massachusetts and 21 other states used to charge nonmembers an “agency fee.” Those fees couldn’t be used for the more controversial activities of public sector unions, like political donations — just bread-and-butter representation costs.


But last year, in the case Janus v. AFSCME, the justices outlawed agency fees, finding that they violated the free speech rights of nonmembers by forcing them to underwrite an organization whose activities they may not support.

That left states to craft a different way to solve the free-rider problem, so that nonmembers don’t get union services without paying for them. Legislation that cleared the House by a 155-1 vote makes clear that unions may charge nonmembers if they use union services. The bill would also make clear that if nonmembers don’t reimburse unions, the unions would be freed from further responsibility from representing the nonmember.

That’s fair enough. But while the main gist of the legislation has widespread support, legitimate concerns have been raised about peripheral sections of the bill. The good news is that those concerns appear quite solvable in the Senate.

One problem is that the legislation would allow unions access to the cell phone numbers, dates of birth, and e-mail addresses of both members and nonmembers. (Unions already have access to addresses and home phone numbers.) The bill’s backers say the purpose is just to update the law to reflect the modern ways people communicate. But critics point out some workers may have perfectly good reasons to consider that information sensitive.


It’s also a redundant provision, since the bill also makes clear that public unions are free to use government computers and e-mail addresses, as well as facilities, for union business. If unions have explicit permission to communicate with nonmembers at work and on work e-mail, what do they need personal cell numbers for?

The simplest solution would be for the Senate to delete that part of the legislation. But if lawmakers keep the information-sharing provision, they should add an opt-out clause for workers who don’t wish to share specific personal data.

A second concern is with a part of the bill that would allow unions to meet with new hires for 30 minutes — presumably to urge them to join.

Frankly, one 30-minute meeting doesn’t seem like too much of an inconvenience, and it’s reasonable to make sure workers know they have the right to join the union. The only change needed here is an explicit provision mandating that new workers also be informed they also have the right not to join the union.

The Janus decision initially seemed to presage a major shift in public workplaces. But in practice, so far it’s mostly just created logistical nuisances. With a few minor changes, the “Janus fix” legislation will update the state’s law to the new legal reality.