NJ lawmakers want to boost public-sector unions
In the face of a pending Supreme Court decision that appears likely to weaken public-sector labor unions, state lawmakers are looking to take a preemptive step to instead strengthen their hand in New Jersey – over the objections of local governments.
Eric Richard, legislative affairs director for the New Jersey AFL-CIO, said the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act is needed because the Supreme Court is likely to soon rule that public workers who don’t want to be in a union no longer have to pay it a reduced fair-share fee.
“What this would do would basically allow union members to have the benefits of union representation but opt out of paying dues,” Richard said. “Essentially what you’re looking at is the potential for the entire public sector throughout the entire country to now become right-to-work.”
Local governments say the bill comes too soon and goes too far, even requiring unions to be provided home addresses and personal email and cell phone numbers of new employees, plus be given Excel spreadsheets with all that information for all workers three times a year.
It will impact operations and taxpayers, said Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
“If we’re going to craft a remedy, or what’s seen as a remedy, to a court decision, wouldn’t we be in a better position to actually have the court decision in hand and then react to the actual decision as opposed to speculative preemption?” Cerra asked.
Local governments say unions already have access to employees but that the proposed expansion would make it potentially disruptive to operations. They also object to including employees who work as little as four hours a week in the union.
Michael Vrancik, director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said public employers already can’t interfere with unions’ recruiting efforts but that the bill takes away from their collective bargaining position and ties their hands.
“This idea of expanding the access and creating almost unfettered access to school facilities, in particular at this time, when everybody has all kinds of security concerns … creates a potentially disruptive process,” Vrancik said.
Nicole Cole, president and chief executive officer of the Charter Schools Association, said the question being considered by the Supreme Court is essentially a First Amendment issue but that the bill puts a gag order on school leaders and that the window for workers to opt out of unions is too limited.
Workers who now can revoke their authorization at any time to have union fees deducted from their payroll would only be able to do so during the 10 days after each anniversary date of their employment, under the legislation. Within five days, the local government would have to provide notice of that revocation to the union. The dues would start being withheld 30 days after the employee’s work anniversary.
“Slow down a little to consider the constitutional dimensions of this bill. Public employees and every taxpayer in this state have an interest in this bill,” Cole said.
John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, took issue with the bill granting unions the right to use public email systems to communicate with their members.
“This legislation is very broad and may allow for the use of political messages, quite frankly, on the public dime,” Donnadio said.
The bill says such emails would be limited to union contract negotiations, grievances and other workplace-related issues. It also says unions could use government buildings for their meetings that aren’t about supporting or opposing political candidates.
The bill – S2137/A3186 – has been advanced this month by the Senate and Assembly labor committees, including Monday on the Assembly side. It is supported by a broad of swath of labor unions, though most opted not to testify before the committees.
As a sign of how likely the bill is to be passed, the sponsors are Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
The Supreme Court case in question is Janus v. AFSCME.