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New legal attack on public employee unions divides state further

December 6, 2018

The charge was stark, in the headline of a Nov. 28 article by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a Connecticut advocacy group that opposes the power of public employee unions.

“AFSCME Defies Janus, Tells Members They Can’t Leave.”

That would be unconstitutional, if true, under the Janus v. AFSCME decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The 5-4 ruling rocked government unions by allowing any member to stop paying dues, or fees, but still receive the benefits of collective bargaining.

The story is a bit more layered than AFSCME Council 4 in Connecticut outright blocking members from quitting. It’s the next battleground in the never-ending legal war over what unions can and can’t do.

AFSCME, like countless other unions across the United States, does allow members to quit — but they can only opt out of paying monthly dues during a 30-day window each year, corresponding with the anniversary of each member’s signing date.

That’s illegal and unconstitutional under Janus, the Yankee Institute says.

It’s legal, fair and prudent financial management, AFSCME union leaders say.

Federal lawsuits were filed Nov. 9 in Los Angeles and last Friday in New Mexico over the exit windows by the Liberty Justice Center, the same conservative group that brought the Janus case on behalf of an Illinois worker. Look for a similar lawsuit at a federal court near you, although a spokeswoman for the Liberty Justice Center declined to say Wednesday whether a case is in the works in Connecticut.

Case or not, the rhetoric is as nasty as you’d expect, precisely as public unions prepare for another round of calls for givebacks in the first budget of Gov.-elect Ned Lamont. Lamont has said he won’t seek more blood from the unions, but he’s going to need some magic to balance the books without it.

“There are a lot of workers for Connecticut’s government who are poorly served by their union,” said Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Yankee Institute. “It is now, as clearly stated in Janus, their right to decide whether they are being served by their union and we believe that if their government union is serving them well, it has no reason to set constraints on their ability to exercise the choice that they are entitled to make.”

Jody Barr, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, which represents 30,000 state and municipal workers, shot back that this latest attack based on the exit windows amounts to harassment. The exit window applies to employees who signed cards over the last three years as AFSCME prepared for a loss in the Janus case — cards that spelled out the yearly exit rules.

It’s like joining Amazon Prime, he said — you can’t get the free shipping in December and then quit in January; it’s an annual membership that allows the union to plan.

”All they’re trying to do is weaken the voice,” Barr said of the Yankee Institute, which has reached out to public employees in Connecticut to make sure they know they can quit without ramifications. “It’s taking away workers’ rights and abilities to advocate together and have a single voice… It’s attacking the middle class.”

He continued, ”Why would rich, well-funded groups want to do this?”

Liebau says the market forces all sorts of companies and organizations, much smaller than AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), to adapt to changing customer behavior.

The Yankee Institute says it’s looking out for workers’ rights against ineffective unions, and at the same time, trying to rein in overly rich pay and benefits packages. That raises a question that Barr asked — which is it? Are the unions too ineffective, or too effective?

It’s both, Liebau said. “Making an agreement that helps one group of people to the detriment of our state’s well-being isn’t a benefit to anyone in the long run. Our civil servants...are the ones who would be hurt the most if we were to get to the point where the state couldn’t meet its obligations.”

For now, the numbers are tiny, Barr said. So far, after more than five months, just 72 union members out of the 30,000 have opted out fully. Another 23, he said, are now waiting for their 30-day windows to come around.

So the stake is just a rounding error in the AFSCME Council 4 budget of $10 million or so. That’s all the more reason the union should just let them out, Liebau said.

Other unions in Connecticut, including some locals of AFT, for example, also use exit windows. It’s a credit to the unions that the issue isn’t larger. Generally, when the year shakes out, we will see the unions retain well over 95 percent of their members, in AFSCME’s case, perhaps 97 percent, Barr said.

More than 1,000 previously unsigned employees have signed cards, with more signing every day.

”The 96 percent of our members that are still paying dues, they are more educated now and they are more united,” Barr said. “It showed in the last election. We got our members educated about how to vote.”

Speaking of the elections, the unions say no political activity is financed by regular members’ dues; that comes from separate, voluntary contributions and in-kind work. And of course, the unions and their supporters have huge power in the state Capitol.

As for the case, the Janus decision is mum on exactly how unions must allow members to quit and whether exit windows are legal. I’d guess the unions will lose because it’s about a right, not a commercial transaction such as Amazon membership.

But the broader issue is, this latest round is part of a pattern of anti-union attacks that’s dividing the two sides widely. I received an email this week from a state worker, who’s not alone, who said he’d quit if his leadership offered more givebacks.

Suddenly, the unions have a financial stake in holding to a hard line.

Barr said AFSCME has always answered to the rank-and-file. “I’m very aware of my role as representing our members and I work for them.”

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