Senate approves mandatory fees on non-union members

The state Senate has approved mandatory fees on non-union members for services they receive, such as representation in grievances and collective bargaining, which under law unions must provide even to non-members.

The Senate bill passed 24-5 Wednesday, and is the first substantive bill to pass the Senate this session. It now faces consideration in the House.

About 2,100 school teachers and support staff, 542 state employees, and 31 municipal employees would have to pay fees capped at 85 percent of full union dues. For education workers, annual fees would range from $150 to $350, with doubled fees for teachers compared to school staff, who include custodians and cafeteria workers.

School boards largely oppose the legislation, which sailed through committee and enjoys widespread support from lawmakers.

Joel Cook, head of the Vermont-NEA, the state’s teacher union, is a key backer of the legislation.

Opposing arguments include the idea that the substantial fee effectively forces non-union members into joining unions, and that the hundreds of thousands in revenues generated by these so-called “fair share” fees could be misdirected towards union political activity.

He hailed the passage today as meaningful progress, and is optimistic about the bill’s fate in the House. Last year a similar bill passed the Senate, only to die in the House during the last days of the session, purely for technical and procedural reasons, according to Cook.

“Ultimately the positions being staked out by opponents are somewhat made up, and so I’m pretty convinced when legislators actually understand the facts about these things, they won’t be swayed by the fear-mongering, frankly, that’s occurring,” said Cook.

Opposing arguments include the idea that the substantial fee effectively forces non-union members into joining unions, and that the hundreds of thousands in revenues generated by these so-called “fair share” fees could be misdirected towards union political activity.

But supporters of fair-share fees, like Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, and Phil Baruth, D-Burlington, said on the floor that the fee is calculated precisely to cover expenses for services used by non-union members, like staff time for the negotiation of contracts or assistance in grievance proceedings.

They said union leaders had documented the need for their specific agency fee rates by providing financial audit records.

The Vermont NEA is expected to raise up to $500,000 per year through agency fees, while the VSEA is expected to raise about $200,000 annually. The two unions say that will cover costs it already bears, and that the money could help lower dues for union members, who complain that it’s unfair for them to bear costs imposed by “freeloading” non-members.

Republican Sens. Peg Flory of Pittsford and Joe Benning of Lyndonville questioned whether the Senate Economic Development Committee had adequately documented union claims, or whether it had swallowed financial figures from union representatives without due diligence.

Cook declined to comment on the implication that union bosses might have other uses for revenue from fresh fees, for example to potentially bolster executive salaries or political activity.

While he didn’t know offhand how much the NEA spent annually on services provided to members and non-union members, he estimated that the majority of union time and money, about 80 percent, is devoted to non-political activity.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, proposed halving the recommended agency fee by capping it at 49 percent of normal union dues in an amendment, which died 21-8 on the floor. He said the state had given unions a virtual taxing privilege by making these fees mandatory, and argued his rate would be more acceptable for voiceless non-union members

Nat Rudarakanchana

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