Local unions say little impact from court ruling on fees

In the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision some billed as a death knell to organized labor, unions in Oregon say the impact has been minimal. Some have even found a silver lining.

“It is a financial hit, but I think it is less significant than they people who are out to destroy us make it out to be,” said Joe Baessler, associate director of Oregon American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

In June, the high court decided in Janus v. AFSCME that unions could not charge nonmembers who benefit from a union for costs associated with contract negotiations.

Prior to the ruling, Oregon was one of 22 “fair share” states, where employees with access to a union, such as teachers, could opt out as a member but still had to pay fees associated for such union activity as labor negotiations or lobbying for nonpartisan issues.

To cover those costs, unions asked nonmembers to pay their “fair share.” Unions pointed to the higher salaries among unionized workers compared to nonunion workers in the same job fields.

A previous Supreme Court ruling restricted unions from using member dues to fund political causes. While unions in Oregon do contribute to campaigns, they do so through a separate political action committee funded by volunteer contributions, according to John Larson, president of Oregon Education Association.

Following the more recent decision, national news reported suggested unions would lose significant funding. But in Oregon, a union stronghold compared to the nation, the amount of fair share payers was minimal, leaders say.

Only a small percentage of Salem teachers opted out of union dues prior to the ruling, said Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem Keizer Education Association. She estimated that was an estimated 25 employees out of the more than 2,000 staff eligible to be in the union.

After the Janus ruling, Merritt said the association refunded fair share fees.

“It was a very minimal amount of money,” she said.

Since the ruling, a handful of teachers who had made fair share payments opted to join the union, Merritt said. Existing union members got more involved in union activities.

“It has actually strengthened our union,” she said.

Salem teachers are bargaining with the Salem-Keizer School District over how employee paycheck deductions would work following the ruling, but Merritt and Kathryn Move, the director of employee relations for the district, said there are no major points of contention.

Other unions were essentially too small and tight knit to be impacted.

The Professional Communications Employees’ Union represents 62 emergency dispatchers and call takers in Salem and, according to President Erin Kay, all eligible employees are union members.

“We are still a small union though. We don’t have many costs,” she said. “We aren’t looking to increase our union to any other departments other than just keeping it in communications.”

Baessler said groups like the Freedom Foundation, which backed the lawsuit, are disingenuous in saying their interest is giving the American worker more options.

“They don’t care about these workers’ freedom, right?” he said. “They care about destroying the unions. They care about rolling back public services and decreasing pensions and wages – the things the public needs – so they can shrink government, so they can pay less taxes.”

Oregon AFSCME represents about 24,000 government employees, Baessler said. About 12 percent of those were fair share payers. Baessler declined to say how much money the union will lose due to the ruling, but said it’s nothing close to crippling.

The Oregon Education Association, a union that represents teachers, had 41,000 members and 3,000 fair share payers. Larson said since the decision, a significant but uncounted number joined the union.

“They said, ‘I’m not willing to be a free-rider, I am not willing to get something I am not paying for,’” Larson said.

Larson said after the decision, the union sent checks to fair share members to reimburse them from the date of the ruling. Some canceled the checks, others sent them back, he said.

Larson said the Supreme Court decision was for unions a “tremendous opportunity” to be less complacent.

“This is an opportunity for us to get out into our schools, talk to people and really dig into the issues they care about, said.

Reporters Rachel Alexander and Troy Brynelson contributed to this report.

Have a story tip? Contact Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.