South Dakota has been a right-to-work state since 1946, when it was made part of the state constitution. That isn’t changing anytime soon. But the IBEW and other groups there are working to pass a measure that would require people benefiting from a union’s services to pay for their fair share.
Initiated Measure 23 is on Tuesday’s ballot. One television advertisement urging its passage features a couple on a tandem bicycle with the woman doing all the pedaling while the man plays with his phone.
“Some people just don’t pull their own weight,” an announcer says in a voiceover. “In South Dakota, there’s a law that allows some people to get away with it. Close the slacker loophole.”
Like in other right-to-work states, South Dakota workers are allowed to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without paying membership dues. IM 23 would require them to pay for services provided by their local bargaining unit.
“Notwithstanding any other provisions of law, an organization, corporate or nonprofit, has the right to charge a fee for any service provided by the organization,” the proposed statute reads.
“It doesn’t force anyone to join a union to have a job,” Jason George from International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 wrote in a letter to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “It doesn’t force anyone to use services that they don’t want. It applies to less than 1 percent of the people in South Dakota – those that choose to work at a place that has a collective bargaining agreement without paying their share.”
The operating engineers have nearly 14,000 members in South Dakota and are among the leading voices in support of the measure. The IBEW and other unions are working closely with the South Dakota AFL-CIO to help with its passage, state political director Gregory DeVries said. A simple majority of yes votes is required.
“We’ve really been pushing with our members that we need to get out and vote,” said DeVries, a former business manager for Huron, S.D., Local 1959. “We’ve had great backing. . . But it’s a monster in the state of South Dakota to get boots on the ground because we [organized labor] have been beat on for so long.”
South Dakota has traditionally been a conservative state, but the GOP has been increasingly dominant in recent years. It controls all the statewide elected offices. Republicans have 58 of the 70 seats in the state House and 27 of 35 seats in the state Senate.
That has made it nearly impossible to get favorable legislation passed for working families. But IM 23 seems to have struck a nerve, even among nonunion families.
It got on the ballot after supporters turned in petitions with more than 20,000 signatures. Only 13,870 were needed by the deadline in November 2015. Supporters also have received enough financial backing to be taken seriously. South Dakotans for Fairness has reported donations of more than $873,000.
The group has released a clever ad campaign that includes commercials airing statewide. One of them shows a group of people enjoying lunch. All but one gets up and leaves as the check arrives, leaving the lone person remaining to pay the bill.
“Some people leave the tab for rest of us to pick up,” the voiceover announcer says, “In South Dakota, there’s a law that allows some people to get away with it.”
DeVries said many people he’s met have talked favorably about IM 23.
“They ask, ‘Why shouldn’t everyone pay their fair share?’” he said. “That’s something people believe in.”
Only about 6 percent of the state’s workforce are union members. DeVries wonders if that’s enough to convince a majority of the state’s population to get out and vote yes on IM 23, especially in a year with no compelling statewide races on the ballot. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and an incumbent Republican senator are expected to easily win in the state.
“I wouldn’t say people are unfriendly to labor,” he said. “But they really just don’t care that much.”
That’s why DeVries and other IBEW members are canvassing and making phone calls with other friends of labor. A stronger than expected turnout might make the difference.
“The IBEW has probably stood out among everyone else in supporting this,” he said.
Homepage photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by Dean Franklin.