Legislation inched forward today toward mandating so-called “fair share” fees for non-union teachers, school administrators and municipal employees. The bill requires non-union employees to pay for services they receive regardless of union membership.
The Senate Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs Committee voted 5-0 to propel the legislation out of committee and onto the Senate floor, where it may see debate as early as Wednesday.
A similar bill was widely debated last year but House Republicans prevented it from coming to the floor for a vote in the last days of the session.
At the heart of a tricky negotiation over labor laws and practices is a debate about fairness. The question is whether teachers and municipal employees should receive benefits without paying dues, as some do now, with most union representatives describing this as a form of “freeloading.” Even though a teacher can choose not to join a union, the single collective contract negotiated by the union with an employer often includes benefits which extend to the non-union member who doesn’t pay dues.
“All Vermont labor unions support the fair share fee proposal, because of its essential fairness,” Joel Cook, executive director of Vermont-NEA, the state teachers union, wrote in a memo. “It is not fair to require dues-paying members to work side by side with those who do not pay their fair share and who get the same services for nothing.”
Some of those other services include representing employees in grievance disputes. Around 700 non-union teachers and more than 1,000 non-union school support staff could be affected by legislation, according to tentative estimates from Cook.
Fees could cost non-union members between $150 and $350 per year, said Cook, with teachers paying about $350, and school support staff paying roughly $175.
Steve Howard, the Vermont State Employees Association’s chief lobbyist, says the VSEA also backs the legislation. In recent testimony, he said, “Our members feel fairly strongly, as you’ve heard from other unions here today, that this is a matter of principle.”
“One worker is paying their membership dues, and being part of the union and getting the benefit of the contract, sitting next to another member who’s getting the same benefits, who’s not paying their fair share; they just think there’s something fundamentally unfair about that.”
“We encourage you to adopt a state policy that really essentially says there will be no freeloading, that people will pay their fair share even if they don’t feel they want to join the union,” said Howard.
Lawmakers on the Senate committee seem largely on board, as indicated by their unanimous vote. But other lawmakers opposed similar efforts last year, with House Republicans eventually preventing a vote on the item in the waning days of the 2012 session.
Former Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, who opposed the bill last year, said, “In really simple terms, I don’t think anyone should be forced to pay union dues. I don’t think anyone should be forced to pay into a union they don’t want to be members of.”
As for employees receiving benefits and representation for free, Olsen replied, “Unfortunately, they aren’t given a choice; they’re forced into being represented.”
“If the union doesn’t want to represent these people and doesn’t want to provide these services that they’re required to provide, a better approach would be to see how we could absolve the union of any obligation to provide these services,” he added.
“That way, both the union and the employee who doesn’t want to be part of the union, both become winners. I’d encourage folks on both sides of the issue to look at that alternative,” he said.
Olsen added that he believed many of the non-union members were lower-paid part-time employees, with an agency fee disproportionately affecting their take-home income.
That concern was echoed by Grant Geisler, president of the Vermont Association of School Business Officials, earlier this week. Citing custodians and cafeteria workers for example, Geisler told lawmakers, “Employees, especially those with little disposable income, who have weighed the pros and cons of membership, will basically lose their right to choose not to belong to a union. And I’m not sure how much of a voice those people have in this discussion.”
Other sources of discontent include the Shumlin administration, and local school boards, who want to keep the imposition of fair share fees as a bargaining chip in labor negotiations rather than write them into law.
The state’s Human Resources commissioner, Kate Duffy, told VTDigger that the Shumlin administration is unhappy with the proposal because about 500 employees who received an express exemption from agency fees in a 1998 contract might now be subject to dues.
“Essentially this was the deal struck at the table; the deal struck at the table should be the deal we stick with,” said Duffy. “I think those 500 could continue to be exempted, but it does not appear to be where this committee is going.”
About 80 percent of school boards do not currently mandate fair share fees for non-union employees. Most school boards argue that the Legislature shouldn’t mandate an item that is currently a bargaining item between unions and school boards.
Another concern is that the revenue raised from these “agency fees,” as they are sometimes known, should go toward lowering dues for union members, rather than to defray the cost of a union’s political activities or expanding its resources, said Stephen Dale, who leads the Vermont School Boards Association.
There are laws in at least four other states which impose agency fees, including Connecticut and Rhode Island. Legislation now under discussion doesn’t address taxpayer funding.
As Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who chairs the Senate committee, summed up: “This is not without controversy, but the basic premise is that there are services provided to these employees, including their wage negotiations, benefit negotiations, their representation in grievance proceedings … and at least some of us believe that they should pay.”
In testimony, Geisler disagreed with that view. “I realize they benefit from the union’s negotiations, but this does, in effect, take away their right to choose not to belong,” he said.