Fight for fees could be headed for general election

PROVIDED - Jill Gibson, Portland attorney and chief petitioner for ballot initiative to end mandatory union feesTwo adversaries in a ballot initiative to strip public sector unions of the power to collect fees from employees who opt out of union membership are united on one front: They’re unhappy with the attorney general’s ballot title for the 2016 measure.

The initiative’s chief petitioner, Jill Gibson, a Portland-area attorney, and initiative opponents Oregon Education Association and SEIU Local 503 have petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to review the ballot title.

Gibson said the description that would appear on the ballot fails to disclose the two benefits of the measure. Employees who opt out of the union would no longer have to pay fees. The union, in turn, would no longer be required to represent non-members in collective bargaining. Instead, non-members would earn merit pay from their employer instead of receiving the pay and benefits outlined in the union’s employment agreement.

The description says a yes vote would prevent a public employer from "basing non-union employee compensation on union contract," allow "compensation differences and require union fees only if they "benefit from representation." A no vote would retain law "allowing contracts that specify all bargaining unit public employees' compensation, require non-member payments" and continue prohibition against compensation encouraging or discouraging union membership.

Union leaders argue that the description fails to communicate the fundamental change the measure would make to collective bargaining in the state. The title “fails to tell voters that the proposal requires different compensation and other employment terms for union and non-union members,” union leaders wrote in their petition.

The union leaders say that change would effectively allow discriminations by “setting employment terms for the purpose of encouraging or discouraging union membership.”

Free-speech rights?

It’s unclear when the Oregon Supreme Court will decide the dispute. Gibson said she still has plenty of time to collect the some 88,000 signatures she needs to get the initiative on the ballot before the July 8 deadline. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on a case argued earlier this month that also challenges mandatory fees, as well as the way they’re collected. The court heard oral arguments Jan. 11 in a case brought by a group of 10 California teachers who say the mandatory fees trample on free-speech rights of workers who oppose union causes.

Labor union officials refer to mandatory fees as “fair share” fees because the money pays for the cost of collective bargaining and pursuing grievances. While dues might cover the cost of some of the union’s political activities, “fair share” fees are restricted to paying for collective bargaining, grievances and other non-political services.

“The court could declare that employees can’t be forced to pay money to a union in which case part of my measure would be moot,” Gibson said.

Some states already have passed laws that prohibit mandatory union fees.

Gibson’s measure goes further than those state laws and the scope of U.S. Supreme Court case by eliminating the requirement for unions to represent employees who don’t pay the fees.

“There would be no free riders,” Gibson said. “It’s not like that in any other state. Every other right-to-work state doesn’t relieve unions of the responsibility of representing free riders.”

Even if the Supreme Court eliminates mandatory fees, she said she would continue to pursue her initiative so that unions would no longer be required to represent employees who decline to pay fees.

No brokered deal

Gibson, who has backing for the initiative from the timber industry, has long been a proponent of ending the mandatory fees. She launched a ballot initiative in 2014 that would have done just that.

Under a settlement agreement brokered by Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2014, Gibson withdrew the initiative in exchange for the unions dropping some proposed tax measures. Those included a corporate sales tax initiative.

Two years later, both Gibson and the unions have resurrected their proposals.

What’s different about this year is no one is trying to broker a deal between Gibson and the unions, Gibson said.

“I don’t think the unions are interested in withdrawing, and I’m not interested in withdrawing,” Gibson said. “There is no one putting pressure to do so.”

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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