Massachusetts and Rhode Island lawmakers took decisive action to lessen the impact of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The new laws provide greater protections for unions and their members, and it’s thanks, in no small part, to IBEW efforts.

Union members protesting against the Supreme Court’s Janus decision during a Working People’s Day rally in March 2018. Massachusetts and Rhode Island joined other states in providing protections to working families and unions following the decision.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user Joe Piette.

In mid-September, both the Massachusetts House and Senate overrode Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of a bill that allows unions to collect “reasonable fees,” such as charging non-members for representation during arbitration and grievance hearings. The vote was 154-1 in the House and 39-1 in the Senate. The House and Senate had passed the bill last summer.

Federal law requires unions to provide those services to workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement even if they refuse to join the local union. But until this year, no state has moved to eliminate non-members’ ability to free-ride on the services paid for by members of the union.

Among those voting “yes” was Sen. Paul Feeney, a member of Boston Local 2222, who called it “our best solution post-Janus.” A video of Feeney’s speech on the Senate floor in support of the measure can be seen here.

Similar legislation was passed in Rhode Island in June, giving unions and their members there more avenues to deal with the Janus decision. That 5-4 ruling, which reversed more than 40 years of precedent, allows public-sector workers to opt out of paying union dues, even when they benefit from a collectively bargained contract.

IBEW members pushed hard for the change In Massachusetts. Boston Local 103 withheld its traditional contributions to General Assembly members last year, most of them Democratic House members. The Democrat-dominated House failed to act on the post-Janus fix last year, Business Manager Lou Antonellis said, and it left many in labor frustrated.

Local 103 has about 1,000 members employed in the public sector, Antonellis said. All of them remained dues payers following the Janus decision, but many members were disappointed by the House’s inaction on a variety of issues important to unions, even though organized labor is a major donor to most Democratic members, he said.

“Our frustration with the Legislature wasn’t just born in one day,” Antonellis said. “Our members have been very frustrated with politics as usual. Going down the same roads and expecting different results got old, and we certainly felt like we got their attention when we withheld $200,000 in donations. We were really at an all-time high frustration level with the people who are supposed to be our friends, the Democrats in the House.”

The “reasonable fee” legislation also strengthens union leaders’ right to meet with newly-hired employees and to speak with other employees during breaks at work, and it allows union officials to communicate with members via public email accounts. Those emails are exempt from the state’s public records laws.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a law helping unions post-Janus. Her Massachusetts counterpart, Gov. Charlie Baker, has his veto overridden.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user A Ricci.

Antonellis said Local 103 also wanted to stand in unity with the rest of the state’s labor community, particularly with public-sector unions hit hardest by the Janus decision. The Second District staff also was active in contacting legislators urging them to support the bill, led by International Representative Ed Starr.

“The fees that unions lost from Janus were a significant amount,” Antonellis said. “We made a point to get out in front of it because we knew what was at stake. We had to go back and almost do a re-organization drive after Janus, but we felt like our membership was well educated and they knew what was at stake.”

For their part, Democrats in the House said they passed this legislation because the state’s unions rallied around it, unlike the bills proposed last year.

“The Janus decision was looked at as a blow,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Boston Globe.. “We wanted to send a message here in Massachusetts in response to that decision.”

Rhode Island’s law similarly allows public employee unions to assess non-members “a reasonable charge” when representing them in grievance and arbitration hearings. A second new law requires state and local government agencies to immediately inform public-employee unions of new hires so the unions can educate them in a timely fashion about the benefits of membership. Both bills were signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo in July.