As reported by NJ.com, Governor Phil Murphy recently signed a bill strengthening the rights of public worker unions, which could face a big threat from a looming decision by the United States Supreme Court. The bill, A3686, the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, gives public labor unions in New Jersey greater access to their members and penalizes public employers that encourage people to resign their union membership. “As a strong advocate for organized labor, I recognize the myriad benefits of employee unionization, as well as the continued challenges unions face in maintaining and growing their membership,” Murphy said in a statement.
In the Janus v. AFSCME case before the Supreme Court, public labor unions nationwide stand to lose the right to collect agency fees workers pay in lieu of compulsory dues if they do not want to pay the full freight, which includes money for political activities. Agency fees for non-members cannot exceed 85 percent of the full membership fee and are meant to support the unions’ nonpartisan activities, like contract negotiations. The plaintiff in Janus, an employee with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Human Services, argues that it is impossible to distinguish between unions’ political and nonpartisan activities and being forced to pay agency fees violates the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court deadlocked on a nearly identical case in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, but the addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch is expected to the tip the Court in favor of the Plaintiff. A ruling against agency fees would make it even more important for labor unions to recruit and retain members, who will have a choice between paying full member dues or none at all.
New Jersey has about 344,000 public union members. The bill allows labor representatives to meet with members in their workplace and during work hours to investigate workplace complaints, to conduct on-site meeting with members during breaks, and to meet with newly hired employees. Public employers, in turn, are required to furnish the organizations with contact information for all covered employees and to allow the group to use the employers’ email to reach out to members. Additionally, if a public employer is found to have encouraged employees to shed their union membership or discouraged them from joining or forming a union, it must reimburse the union for those lost dues. The bill would also extend union membership to the majority of part-time government employees.
In April, the State Assemble passed the bill 50-22, with one abstention and it went 26-9 in the State Senate. Supporters say the law codifies what are already common practices in some places, while opponents have called it premature, unnecessary and overreaching.
As you can see, the impact of an adverse holding in Janus v. AFSCME can potentially have an enormous impact upon public labor unions. As such, this bill anticipates such an impact and proactively attempts to address the same. Consequently, please continue to check this blog periodically to ascertain updates regarding the Janus case and the resulting impact upon organized labor.