The federal legislation would give all state and local government employees protections similar to those that private-sector workers enjoy, including the right to voluntarily have union dues deducted from their paychecks. A number of states prohibit automatic payroll deductions for public employees, claiming government resources should not be used to underwrite union agendas.
“This act reaffirms every public-sector worker’s right to join a union and bargain collectively with their employer for better wages and working conditions,” Hirono said at a news conference Thursday. “It sets federal minimum standards that every state in this country must meet to provide these basic rights to our public employees.”
Congressional Democrats say the federal government must play a role in upholding the rights of public workers to engage in collective bargaining at a time when they say corporate interests, backed by the highest court in the land, threaten to undermine the labor movement.
Thursday’s measure arrives a day after the Supreme Court barred public-employee unions, such as those representing teachers, from collecting fees from workers who choose not to join the union. The court ruled 5 to 4 in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 that the fees are unconstitutional because they hinder workers’ free-speech rights. The decision is expected to result in a decline in public-union membership and revenue.
Democratic leadership present for the bill’s unveiling railed against the Supreme Court decision as an all-out assault on the working class.
“The Janus decision is a gut-punch to working people across America,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the news conference Thursday. “It’s a despicable decision, and the court reached out to overturn 50 years of precedent on a flimsy, almost made-up First Amendment justification to meet their ideological needs. We Democrats are going to fight hard to undo it.”
Organized labor has played a critical role in supporting Democratic candidates and initiatives, an alliance that has caused consternation among some public workers. Unions are prohibited from using dues for political purposes, but critics say their political action is too intertwined with their primary duties. The lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Mark Janus, a child-support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, argued that he should not be forced to fund union activities that he does not support.
The relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party could prevent Thursday’s bill from gaining bipartisan support. More than 50 Senate and House Democrats are backing the measure, but it needs to attract Republican lawmakers to advance.
“We reach out and urge our Republican colleagues to join us because this is not the way America should be going,” Cartwright said. “We should be honoring and valuing the regular, ordinary, hardworking men and women in this country. And not stripping away their rights.”