Union bill sparks questions about conflict of interest for one representative

UPDATE: The House passed S.95 on third reading. Attempts to amend the language regarding certification of state funds failed.

Saturday’s session was meant to be a gavel in, gavel out affair in the House of Representatives, after all, the reps are all but done with their business for the year.

But there’s no telling what can happen in a floor debate and on Saturday, a little bill designed to protect employees turned into big deal and became the catalyst for several hours of debate.

S.95, a piece of Senate legislation that is similar to a bill that was drawn up in the House, prevents employers from using credit reports as part of the hiring process for new workers. Another provision allows school employees to be paid over a calendar year. So far, so good.

It was the third provision of the bill that sent the body into a frenzy of discussion and amendments. It required community mental health agencies that receive state funds to certify that none of the money is used to restrict or interfere an “employee’s rights with respect to unionization.”

Turns out the reporter of the bill, Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, had what appeared to be a conflict of interest, and other lawmakers questioned whether the bill was directed at his former employer, Health Care and Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont, one of the state’s community mental health agencies.

HCRS was involved in a labor dispute a few years ago, and Moran, a substance abuse counselor for HCRS, was one of the union members who was involved in the fight waged by the United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5051.

In 2007, HCRS filed a formal complaint with the House Rules Committee against Moran, regarding what the organization saw as a violation of his conflict of interest limits under House Rule 75.

The letter alleged that Moran had used his position as a lawmaker to put pressure on his employer.

An attorney for HCRS wrote: “Rep. Moran’s public advocacy — wielding the influence of his legislative position — for his own financial gain — is gross misuse of that office; it is possibly slanderous as well, notwithstanding the legislative immunity doctrine.”

HCRS laid off Moran, who worked on a per diem basis, a few years ago. He now works at the Brattleboro Retreat.

Moran says he’s done nothing wrong, and he has nothing to gain from the legislation now under consideration. Besides, Moran says, he was never a union organizer, he was just a member of the union.

“Once I was elected as a legislator (in 2007), I dropped away from active participation in the union,” Moran said.

In the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, of which Moran is a member, lawmakers took testimony in March about the salary levels of the upper management of HCRS and grilled the CEO of the agency about how much money was spent on lawyers to fight the union. The agency spent $1.1 million in salaries for eight executives in 2009. That year, HCRS spent more than $500,000 on the legal expenses for Jackson Lewis, a Boston firm that has a reputation for union busting.

On Saturday, Rep. Helen Head, D-S. Burlington, suggested that the language of S.95 be broadened to include all employers who receive grant funds from the state. The legislation would apply to municipalities, schools and other entities. Employers would have to certify that no funds were used “to interfere with or restrain the exercise of an employee’s rights with respect to unionization.”

The bill passed and is up for third reading on Monday.

The remarks of Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, were journalized for the record.

“How ironic to have blatantly anti-union motions brought forward on a Saturday,” Pearson said. “After all, it was unions that gave us the very concept of our treasured weekends.”

Over the weekend, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns sent out an action alert asking local officials to contact their legislators and ask “why such a certification is necessary on top of all the requirements already in place for state dollars granted to municipalities.”

According to the League, “every” city and town in the state receives grants of state funds, “town highway aid being among the most widely distributed.”

Karen Horn wrote: “It seems redundant and unnecessary to require a new certification that the municipality is complying with laws already in statute or grant conditions already in place, particularly when it is unclear what ‘records’ shall be required upon request to attest to such certification.”

The Secretary of Administration would be responsible for the certification records. The Shumlin administration opposes the legislation.

On Monday, the House approved the bill on third reading. Attempts by Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, to amend the bill failed.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:19 a.m. April 30 with new information from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Anne Galloway

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  • Conor Casey

    Jackson Lewis charges $1,600 a person for seminars entitled “How to Stay Union Free in Today’s Era of Corporate Campaigns” and “Best Employer Practices to Stay Union Free in the Millennium.” They’re the largest union busting firm in the country and HCRS should be ashamed for ever hiring them.

    It’s amazing that Representative Moran is being vilified for asking that state vendors simply follow the law and certify they’re not spending state funds to restrict union activity.

    Taxpayers deserve to know that in 2009 (when our budget was in a sad state of disrepair), HCRS was shelling out $500,000 on legal services. Couldn’t these funds be better spent on providing mental health services in the community?

    • Kel Varnsen

      What is amazing is that someone pretends not to understand why an employer might not want a union permeating every aspect of their business. At one time unions were necessary and productive. Now they often exist just to promote their own existence. Take the NEA for example, a union that could not care less about students, yet hold a death grip on our educational system. A good substite for arrogance in expecting everyone to share one’s viewpoint is to actually try to put oneself in the other’s shoes.

  • Scott Walken

    Some labor group should organize the community mental health places if they aren’t already. I see the help wanted ads and they are full of these places looking for people to do this work for not a lot. The turnover at some of these places is pretty high. If the jobs were worth it maybe people might stay a little longer.

  • Joyce Dion

    Those of us in the union at HCRS have felt the brunt of HCRS anti union activity. It is very difficult to think that HCRS spent $537,000 in 2008/2009 against us instead for the purpose these state funds were designated for–direct services to our clients. We figure $537,000 would have paid for an additional 12-14 clinicians providing 10,000 additional direct service hours. 2008-9 was a time when the mental health services were being shredded due to Vermont being caught up in the worst recession in years. It is unfathomable that nothing was done about this misuse of state funds. S95 would go a long way towards preserving state funds be used for the purpose designated by the legislature.

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