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Beacon Hill looks for ways to help unions after court ruling

July 7, 2018

BOSTON (AP) — Unions have spent decades cultivating ties on Beacon Hill and now Massachusetts lawmakers and other elected officials are looking for ways to help unions as they weigh the fallout of a recent Supreme Court decision.

The court ruled last month that public employees can’t be forced to pay fees to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining. Labor supporters — many of whom had been bracing for the ruling — fear it could financially weaken unions and affect millions of government workers.

On Beacon Hill, the reaction among some top lawmakers was swift.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he would look for ways to soften the blow.

It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of action lawmakers could take, but DeLeo, a Democrat, told reporters that legislative leaders are talking to unions to discuss possible action.

“We just want to make sure that unions still have a place here in Massachusetts and they play a role again in the Massachusetts economy,” DeLeo told reporters after the June 27 decision.

DeLeo said he hopes to act before the Legislature completes its formal session on July 31.

Massachusetts Senate President Harriette Chandler called the decision “a disgrace” and “a systematic attack on public workers conceived of and paid for by deep-pocketed corporate interests.”

“This is an attack on fair wages, on affordable health care, on the ability to collectively bargain for equity across the board,” the Democrat said, adding that she “can’t wait to stand with” labor groups as they fight back.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Maura Healey issued an advisory that she said reaffirmed public employee rights and employer obligations under state labor laws.

Healey said in a statement that she “vehemently” disagrees with the court.

“But our state’s well-established labor laws remain unchanged,” said Healey, a Democrat. “My office will always act to protect working families, ensure safe working conditions, and defend the right of workers to organize.”

Massachusetts union leaders said they were disappointed in the ruling.

Service Employees International Union Local 509 President Peter MacKinnon said the court sided with what he called “anti-worker extremists.”

“Today, the Supreme Court came down on the wrong side of history in a case that the rich and powerful are hoping will divide us,” MacKinnon said in a statement after the ruling. “But no court case is going to stop us from fighting for the strong unions our communities need.”

To help make their case to state lawmakers on any number of issues, unions typically spend millions lobbying Beacon Hill. Last year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association — the state’s largest union — reported spending over $500,000 on lobbying efforts in the state.

Not everyone is upset with the decision.

The conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute applauded the ruling, arguing in a written statement that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association “means that just as union membership should never be banned, no one should be compelled to contribute to an organization — particularly one with which they disagree.”

The group argued that the ruling could have a significant effect in Massachusetts politics by chipping away at how much money unions can spend lobbying at the Statehouse and instead forcing them to direct more of their funds to collective bargaining negotiations.

Healey said that her advisory highlights existing state laws that protect employee rights to organize and to act collectively, free of interference by an employer.

She said the advisory clarifies that the court ruling has no effect on existing membership agreements between a union and its members regarding union dues and does not change any laws that protect access to public employee’s personal information.

She said the decision only effects the payment of an agency service fee by individuals who decline union membership. Under the ruling, she said, public employers may not deduct agency fees from a nonmember’s wages without the employee’s consent.

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