Published December 5, 2018 at www.governing.com
by Graham Vyse
When Mark Janus was introduced at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference in Washington, D.C., last week, he was hailed as a conquering hero.
Lisa Nelson, the group’s CEO, called him “the successful plaintiff of one of the most consequential Supreme Court decisions of the year” -- a man who helped achieve “a Herculean feat for employees' rights.” Tennessee Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey later told the crowd that the Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that non-union employees can opt out of paying fees to unions representing them in budget negotiations, was “the biggest win for workers’ rights and workers’ freedom in over a generation.”
But when Janus took the stage, soft-spoken and unassuming in his glasses and white mustache, the former Illinois state worker stressed that the fight was just beginning.
He urged legislators at the conference to champion ALEC’s “very, very positive” model bills that would further restrict public and private unions' power in their states. The Supreme Court's ruling gives the conservative group and others new momentum when pursuing that mission in state capitals.
“Get girded for a fight,” former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett told state lawmakers at the conference, “because it’s gonna take place. ... It will now be fought out on the ground, in the places you know best.”
ALEC's “Public Employee Rights and Authorization Act,” for instance, would codify the Janus decision at the state level, establishing a “right to work” for public employees and declaring that these employees have to give “affirmative consent” for their union to collect payments from them. More than half the states already have similar laws.
Under the “Union Recertification Act,” what ALEC calls “worker voting rights,” workers in unions would have to vote every couple of years on whether they want to continue with their current union representation. Typically, there is no such opportunity for public employees, unless they go through a very involved and rare “decertification” process. Similar laws have already passed in Florida, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, according to F. Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Then there are “workers’ choice” bills, the “Public Employee Choice Act” and the “Comprehensive Public Employee Freedom Act,” which would allow government workers to opt out of union representation and represent themselves in negotiations with their employer. These type of bills have yet to be passed anywhere, though they've been introduced in states like Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania, says Vernuccio.
Other ALEC bills would increase transparency in union spending and ban “release time,” in which a public employee draws a public salary while working on union recruiting and representation activities.
“This is a great way to weed out corruption, for public employees to know exactly where their hard-earned dues are going and where their unions are getting their money, and help them make an informed choice about whether they want to stay a member of their union,” said Vernuccio during a breakout session at the ALEC conference.
“As wonderful as Janus was,” said Vernuccio, “it still gave 'right to work' only to public employees. There are 23 states right now where private-sector unions can still get workers fired for not paying them, and we can't lose sight that we still need 'right to work' in those states as well.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten challenged Vernuccio's assertion on NPR earlier this year, saying, “That is just completely false. No one ever was fired for not joining a union.”
For their part, unions believe that ALEC's agenda is about killing the labor movement. The fewer people who pay union fees, the less money -- and arguably power -- the unions will have. In most right-to-work states, union membership significantly dropped after passage of the anti-union law.
ALEC-inspired bills won't get a warm reception everywhere. Since the Janus decision, some Democratically controlled states have made it harder for public employees to leave unions.
New Jersey limited the time frame when government workers can withdraw from their union. New York banned state agencies from releasing employees’ personal data that could be used by groups like ALEC to persuade members to pull out. California, New Jersey and Washington now prohibit public employers from discouraging union membership. In New Jersey, employers that break this law will be forced to reimburse unions for any lost dues.