Wisconsin law could have ripple effect for unions in other states

By Chris Camire | SentinelandEnterprise.com | July 16, 2012

Union membership dropped dramatically in Wisconsin last year after the state’s governor signed a bill outlawing the automatic withholding of union dues from workers’ paychecks.

If states like Massachusetts follow suit, it could lead to a dramatic weakening of public-sector unions across the country, said Barry Bluestone, a Northeastern University political economist.

But some question whether it is the job of government to deduct union dues from public employees’ paychecks, arguing that taxpayer dollars should not be used to contribute to the money base of unions that play key roles in state politics.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial law, signed in March 2011, said workers must voluntarily say they want to continue paying dues to remain members of the union.

After the law went into effect, the state’s second-largest union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had membership fall to from 62,818 to 28,745 in less than a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The organization’s AFSCME Council 24, comprised of state workers, fell from 22,300 to 7,100 members, more than a two-thirds decline.

In Massachusetts, the state’s six largest public-sector unions collected a combined $28.6 million in fiscal 2012 from union dues, according to figures provided by the Executive Office of Administration and Finance. The National Association of Government Employees, which represents 22,000 workers in more than 60 state agencies in Massachusetts, collected $10.6 million alone.

Bluestone likens automatically deducting dues from workers’ paychecks to paying taxes. Because unions are required to represent employees even if they do not pay dues, Bluestone said a drop in payments would make it difficult for these organizations to represent employees on issues such as collective bargaining and grievances.

“If you can receive services without paying dues, they won’t pay the dues,” said Bluestone. “If people who enjoy representation opt out of paying, then it’s difficult to offer representation.”

Unions in Wisconsin filed suit in federal court against Walker’s law, and in March a federal judge blocked the provisions dealing with voluntary collection of union dues. Walker’s administration has appealed.

Still, Wisconsin’s effort to weaken public-sector unions is reverberating in other states.

Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a measure prohibiting schools from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks. In Missouri GOP lawmakers want to pare back mandatory wages on public works projects and halt the perpetual deduction of union dues from public employee paychecks by requiring annual written authorization.

Last year, Democratic Gov. John Lynch vetoed a bill that would have made New Hampshire a right-to-work state, limiting unions’ ability to collect fees from nonunion workers. The House passed it again this year, but it died when Republicans realized they did not have a veto-proof majority.

House Speaker William O’Brien says he will try to pass the measure again next year, when the state could have a Republican governor.

In Massachusetts, some Republican lawmakers are questioning the state’s practice of automatically withdrawing union dues from workers’ paychecks.

“I’m not quite sure why the state is getting involved in the business of unions,” said Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican. “You’d think that was something that would be done between the members and the unions. Instead we’re using taxpayer dollars to oversee the collection of union dues. I don’t see how that makes sense.”

State officials could not say how much it costs Massachusetts to withdraw dues on behalf of unions, but Bluestone estimated that the cost is minimal.

“It’s fairly easy for the state to do it since they already deduct things like state taxes, Social Security and Medicare,” said Bluestone. “It’s very efficient. It’s quite inefficient for the union to send out a bill.”

Representatives from several of the state’s largest unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, and the Service Employees International Union, Local 509, declined to comment for this story.

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