Vt. House approves mandatory fees on non-union members

Steve Howard, the chief lobbyist for the VSEA state employees union, tells lawmakers he supports imposing mandatory agency fees for non-union members. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Steve Howard, the chief lobbyist for the VSEA state employees union, tells lawmakers he supports imposing mandatory agency fees for non-union members. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

The Vermont House voted 78-51 on Thursday to impose union fees on about 2,600 non-union education, state and municipal employees.

Known alternately as “agency fees” or “fair share fees,” backers of the mandatory fees say non-union members receive virtually all the benefits of union membership, without paying dues, which can run up to $500 annually.

They’re known sometimes as “fair share fees.” Advocates argue that “free riders” need to pay their fair share for services they receive. The non-union members are included in the collective contracts which unions negotiate with employers, for instance and can file grievances.

Critics say the mandatory fees effectively force workers to join unions, including those who earn little and can ill-afford to pay up to 85 percent of union dues.

Rep. Bob Bouchard, R-Colchester, said 188 support staff in his school district will end up paying $238 annually in agency fees.

“$238 per year – that’s a lot of money for the working poor,” said Bouchard on the House floor. “I’d assume a lot of them have to count every penny.”

Bouchard proposed an amendment to exclude school support staff from the legislation, leaving it intact only for teachers and other groups. The amendment died 50-86.

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, flipped Bouchard’s argument around. He noted that currently 32 people bear the entire cost of union negotiations and services, even though 188 people receive those services, an obvious unfairness.

He added that spreading the burden over more people could lead to better collective bargaining, which could in turn directly improve the salaries of poorly paid school staffers.

He estimated that fees could come down by $50 to $100 annually if everyone paid up. Under the legislation, money collected from agency fees goes toward lowering the cost of union dues.

Another sticking point in the debate involved how to handle some 500 state employees, who were explicitly promised that they’d be exempt from agency fees in a 1998 contract.

Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, said that to renege on that promise via legislation set a disturbing precedent, while Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, countered that items which were subject to collective bargaining in the past have since been legislated into statute. Currently, whether or not to impose agency fees on employees is a subject which employees and employers negotiate at the bargaining table.

Attempts to exempt these 500 or so state employees, a carve-out which the Shumlin administration has backed, were defeated on the House floor.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, also tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill by changing labor practices, so that unions are no longer the sole representative for the entire workforce they cover, even representing those who don’t belong to the unions.

That would mean those who belong to unions would pay dues, and that non-members wouldn’t pay agency fees, but also wouldn’t receive any union services. They’d have to negotiate their employment contracts directly with their employers, which Moran said undermined the spirit of collective bargaining.

Browning argued that this avoided two inequities, that of free-riding and compulsory union membership. She doesn’t believe it conflicts with any federal laws. Her amendment died in a voice vote.

The bill also mandates a study on the advantages and disadvantages of instituting a “merit pay” system among teachers, due in January 2014. The bill must still clear third reading for final passage.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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