“Fair share” fees legislation passes out of committee

Steve Howard

Steve Howard, chief lobbyist for the Vermont State Employees Union, tells lawmakers he supports imposing mandatory agency fees for non-union members. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

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.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Jim Barrett

    The forcing of union dues upon people who refuse to pay union dues is a win, win for the democrats and they know it. This simply means that the democrats will receive more money than ever from unions at election time. Forcing people to pay union dues is more like extortion and the only difference here is that the state should be calling unions democrats.

  • Let’s drop the “fair share” phrase and call it what it is: an agency fee (see http://www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/fullchapter.cfm?Title=16&Chapter=057 for that definition and more regarding schools and labor relations).

    Regarding teacher contracts my number one choice is best expressed in an oped I penned titled “Either or, but not both – exploring a new teacher compact” (http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2012/12/19/schneider-either-or-but-not-both-exploring-a-new-teacher-compact/)

    After that I’m agreement with Mr Olsen – if a teacher or administrator chooses not to use the VT NEA’s services, then that should be an individual choice and any requirements that the NEA provides such services should be declared null and void regardless point of origin (legislative or contractual).

    If that doesn’t carry the day then let’s have a true “fair share” – as in let’s trade away a share of both side’s bargaining power in a fair way: give the unions their agency fee; but also require that all staff, teacher or administrative negotiating councils be made up of members of the specific local unit (and no – no outside memberships allowed). The school board members sit at the table – have the staff, teachers and administrators sit at the table too.

  • John Greenberg

    I wonder if it would be legal/constitutional for unions to negotiate a contract which grants higher salaries to union members than to their non-union counterparts?

  • Patrick Cashman

    It’s “fair share” when Labor does it, “unsolicited goods and services” when a business does it.

    Title 9, § 4401. Rights of recipient of unsolicited goods or services; obligation of business recipient to notify seller

    (a) Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, if a seller delivers unsolicited goods to a recipient, the recipient may:

    (1) refuse the unsolicited goods; or

    (2) deem the unsolicited goods to be a gift and dispose of them in any manner without obligation to the seller; provided that, in the case of a recipient who is not a natural person, before disposing of the goods, the recipient shall make a reasonable effort to notify the seller that it has received the unsolicited goods.

    (b) If a seller delivers goods to a recipient in error and notifies the recipient of the error within 20 days, or before the recipient has used or disposed of the unsolicited goods, whichever is sooner, then:

    (1) The seller shall provide, within 20 days of the notification of error, for the pick-up or return shipment of any remaining portion of the unsolicited goods at the seller’s expense and risk, during which time the recipient shall take reasonable care of the remaining unsolicited goods. The recipient need not tender the remaining goods at any place other than the place of delivery or the location of the remaining goods at the time of the notification of error and shall have no further obligation to accommodate the seller’s schedule for pick-up or return shipment or otherwise to facilitate the recovery of the item beyond the requirements of this section. If the recipient refuses to relinquish any remaining portion of the unsolicited goods to the seller, or agrees to relinquish the remaining unsolicited goods to the seller and fails to do so, the recipient shall be liable for the cost of the unsolicited goods not relinquished to the seller.

    (2) The seller may discontinue services to the recipient. The recipient shall not be liable for any services delivered or used prior to the discontinuance of service.

  • Nelson Sears

    If this legislation passes, then these unions would receive an additional $450,000 a year in dues. Perhaps Mr. Cook could tell us how much of that money remains in state and how much goes to national for political lobbying?

    This fair share scheme flies in the face of the alleged mission of most unions and is, as others have indicated, extortion.

    Yet another reason why Vermonters should support local grass root unions over the large national ones.

  • Peter Everett

    As a retired Massachusetts teacher who spent 35 years with mandatory union membership or pay an “Agency Fee” equal to 80% of annual dues (over $750/yr) because we had to join NEA, Massachusetts Teachers Assn, our local assn and our county assn. We had no choice. Why pay 80% when it left us with no liability coverage. Therefore, we all paid the dues, very grudgingly toget the liability coverage. These 4 Assn’s used our dues to further their political agendas, which often times went against the majority of members.
    I received a very nasty response to a query I had. Was totally uncalled for on the part of those in charge.
    The dues we paid resulted in very little financial benefits for members, my last 6 – 7 years. Massachusetts has a property tax increase called Prop 2 1/2. This limits increases each year to no more than 2 1/2%. Many raises were in the 1 – 2% range my last few years. Anything higher resulted in RIFFing staff and increased class size. Dues increases often offset any raise, netting us a negative gain.
    If the “Fair Share” goes to local educational issues, fine. If the NEA or local systems use this money for ANY political agenda, I would tell the assn I wouldn’t pay.
    Last point, Is Vermont a “Right to Work” state. If so, they cannot force members to pay anything. Massachusetts is NOT a Right to Work state, therefore, they can force membership or Agency Fees.

  • Patrick Cashman

    It’s also a bit too convenient that this issue should come up just as Mr. Baruth, Zuckerman, et al, reintroduced a measure to forcibly unionize childcare workers. It’s interesting that in that bill the “antitrust exemption” has to be spelled out in exacting detail, exactly because it establishes a trust or cartel. The “trust busters” of yester-year are rolling in their graves.

  • Pat McDonald

    Thanks to the Administration for recognizing what the right thing to do is in this instance. I was the Commissioner of Personnel (Human Resources) when the Agency Fee Bill was passed. An agreement was reached between Governor Dean, Secretary Bill Sorrell, and Tom Whitney, VSEA. All felt that to charge a fee to current employees was not appropriate and that the fee would apply only to “new hires”. As Commissioner, I read a letter of support from Secretary Sorrell to the Committee of jurisdiction – House General Affairs with Representative John Murphy as Chair. The Legislature agreed that this was the right approach and the bill passed with the clear understanding that it would apply only to “new hires”. It is truly disappointing to know that S-14 was passed out of Senate Economic Development on a 5-0 vote. Hopefully the rest of the Legislature will recognize and honor the commitments made in 1998.

  • Rachael Fields

    It’s not fair that people are getting services for free while their coworkers are paying for the same services. Are they refusing the rewards of bargaining? No. They are not standing up asking not to receive raises or begging not to be represented in grievance procedures. Nor are they asking for less accrued leave. The fact is, non members are receiving these services and should be paying for them just like their union-member coworkers. This is only fair! If you don’t want to be a union member, you don’t have to be, but if you want to reap the rewards of bargaining contracts, you should have to pay for the representation.

    • Patrick Cashman

      “Are they refusing the rewards of bargaining?” If only that were an option. Instead unsolicted union “services” are forced upon everyone.

      In regards to the statement “If you don’t want to be a union member, you don’t have to be”. This duplicitous statement also keeps coming up in comments abut ongoing forced unionization of childcare workers. Let’s be truthful; you can choose not to be a voting member of the union who contributes extra money that goes to strictly political purposes, but you can’t choose to withold the money your labor earned from the union. The union will use methods such as “agency fees” to make sure they get their cut. Which is kind of the point of this article; the union making their shakedown legal.

  • If the unions can no longer spend money for political interests then that is acceptable. Probably the majority who are non-union members would vote against the candidates the union is spending money backing so these people are forced to have their money used to support candidates they oppose and that is extortion pure and simple.

  • Curtis Sinclair

    The Senate advanced the bill on a 26 to 3 vote. Maybe it’s time to push to make Vermont a Right-to-work state.

  • christine labarre

    If you do not support forcing any employee to become a member of the union then please my petition. We should start to push Right to Work laws not Anti-Right to work laws.


  • christine labarre

    The link for my petition which opposes forced membership to unions can be found here:


    Please tell government no one, including current union members, should be forced to be in a union. Government supports the right to choose vaccination, the right to death with dignity, why not the right to choose to be in a union??

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