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Union Divide Contributed To Janus Bill's Demise

Less than a month before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a public sector union's right to charge fees to non-members, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was already thinking about what could be done in response.

At a podium in front of 6,000 Democrats at the DCU Center in Worcester, the Winthrop Democrat assured labor that Massachusetts would not allow the court to weaken them by cutting off a key source of funding.

"Should the United States Supreme Court rule in the Janus case, the House is prepared to move quickly to make sure that workers' union rights are maintained and that unions can remain strong," DeLeo told the gathering of delegates at the state party convention on June 2.

Two months later and a month after the decision came down, the Senate rushed through a bill in the closing hours of formal session to respond to the court decision, but that bill would die without a vote in the House, as labor leaders tried unsuccessfully to lobby DeLeo to let it move.

The hitch, according to multiple stakeholders interviewed by the News Service, was that the labor community was not united. More specifically, the Teamsters said no.

"The House worked to get all parties to come to a consensus, and the Speaker's office was in daily communication with stakeholders whose positions continued to shift as negotiations among the parties was ongoing. Ultimately, while he hoped that the stakeholders would come to a consensus, they did not," DeLeo spokeswoman Catherine Williams said.

The showdown as the curtain was about to fall on formal legislative sessions for the year came after weeks of talks and negotiations between leaders on Beacon Hill, including Gov. Charlie Baker, and public sector unions.

The Teamsters, who endorsed Baker for re-election in February, felt strongly that the fix could be a simple one: Pass a law making clear that contracts negotiated by unions only apply to union members.

But while the Teamsters wanted to walk away from the so-called "free riders" who won't pay dues but still benefit from collective bargaining contracts, a broader labor coalition felt that keeping the door open to non-dues-paying employees was an important principle of organized labor that shouldn't be abandoned.

Once on the side of the Teamsters, the National Association of Government Employees and the Laborers unions eventually broke off and joined with a group led by the AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and SEIU in support of a bill that would ultimately pass the Senate on a voice vote.

"The truth is we're a movement, and when you really think it through, it's about representing everyone. They wanted to go too far, and we wouldn't agree," Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman said, referring to the Teamsters.

Asked why the bill didn't pass, Tolman said, "That is a question for Bobby DeLeo."

A former member of both the House and Senate, Tolman said the inability to get a Janus bill through was just the latest blow this session to organized labor. Unions, he said, also saw a wage theft bill fall by the wayside (also in the House) and had to swallow the elimination of time-and-a-half pay on Sunday as part of a "grand bargain" between legislators and the business community to raise the minimum wage and implement paid family leave without a ballot question to slash the sales tax.

"I'm pissed off, frankly," Tolman said about the outcome, a couple days after the dust had settled. "I'm gonna deal with it, but I haven't figured out how yet. It's pretty frustrating. (DeLeo) stood up publicly and said it in the newspaper, said it at our breakfast that we have do something to put protections in place. Well, actions speak louder than words. Something's wrong in there when one person, or two or three, is controlling everything."

Tolman tried to lobby DeLeo personally last Tuesday night as time was running out, even knocking on one of the locked doors to the speaker's office where he was told by a senior member of the speaker's staff that DeLeo was "too busy" to see him and turned away, according to Tolman.

Approaching other Democrats was equally fruitless. "They're almost afraid to talk to you because they haven't got permission," Tolman said.

The Senate bill would have allowed unions to charge non-members for representation in grievances, and would have required public agencies to allow unions to meet with members on premises during lunch or other breaks and use the public email system for union business.

Public employers would also have had to provide unions with contact information for all new employees and allow a representative to meet with newly hired workers for at least 30 minutes within 10 days of hire.

A union could also establish a period of up to a year during which an employee that had opted into the union could not revoke payment of their dues, under the bill.

"This Janus case did exactly what the Koch brothers and corporate America wanted it to do. It created discord and some disdain between the unions," said Sen. Joe Boncore, a champion of the collective bargaining bill in the Senate. "This compromise language was going to show that public sector unions were going to remain united in the commonwealth."

Boncore, like DeLeo, comes from Winthrop, and he said he believes that House leaders mean it when they say something needs to be done to protect unions.

"There's a lot of bills in the Senate that the House sent over that didn't get acted on and there are ones like this that went over to the House. That's just the process and what happens when we take up so may bills in the last couple of days," Boncore said.

While he repeatedly referred to the Senate legislation as a "consensus bill," Boncore declined to single out the Teamsters as the reason the bill failed. But he also said, "No," when asked if he could name another union that was opposed.

"I would say the overwhelming majority of public sector unions agreed to this language and agree this is the right path forward to preserve what we can preserve within the confines of Janus. Any other proposal that was on the table wasn't constitutional, at the end of the day," Boncore said.

Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O'Brien, in a statement, said that his union supports state action that would "prevent free riders in our public sector unions." "While Teamsters Local 25 still embraces some provisions of the bill, we are adamant that it did not go far enough to protect the voices and interests of all our members," O'Brien said about the Senate effort.

O'Brien declined a request to be interviewed, but said the Teamsters remain committed to working with Beacon Hill leaders to find a "truly workable solution."

"It's important to remember that the requirement to pay your fair share was based upon the principle that the costs of collective bargaining should be distributed fairly among all those that benefit from union representation. Teamsters Local 25 believes strongly that all employees should be required to pay their fair share for union representation and should not be allowed to 'free ride' on the backs of their loyal union brothers and sisters," O'Brien said. "We remain committed to not allowing this anti-union, pro-free rider U.S. Supreme Court decision to undermine the benefits of having union representation in Massachusetts."

DeLeo's office didn't specifically mention the Teamsters, but Williams did say that the Massachusetts Municipal Association also had concerns with the Senate bill. MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith was not available Monday to discuss those concerns.

Pushing a collective bargaining reform through the Legislature during informal session would be extremely difficult, but DeLeo and Boncore both said they hope the Legislature can keep working on the issue in the weeks and months ahead.

"Hopefully, it's something we'll take up in short order in January when there's less on the table and more conversations can be had between the two chambers and all parties that are close to this issue," Boncore said.

Not everyone, however, was sad to see the issue die on Beacon Hill for now.

The Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning Beacon Hill think tank, blasted the early versions of the legislation offered by Sens. Boncore and Nick Collins as the "employee coercion and intimidation act."

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance also said that inaction was the best it could have hoped for. "Whenever union bosses ask the legislature to pass legislation at the last minute, the public should be worried," said Paul Craney, a MassFiscal board member.

Craney took particular issue with a provision that would have made contact information for new hires available to public-sector unions.

"We can all imagine what they'd do with that very sensitive information. They shouldn't have it because frankly, it's none of their damn business," Craney said.

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