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State law could blunt the impact of Supreme Court ruling on unions

A potential reduction in members could reduce the political influence of unions, which have been a powerful group in New York for years.

Betty Shadrick, center, with the United University Professions

Betty Shadrick, center, with the United University Professions union, rallies in support of unions outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Feb. 26. Photo Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

ALBANY — New York public-sector unions could lose 200,000 or more members in the wake of Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on collective bargaining, though a law the state adopted in March could blunt the impact by making it harder for people to opt out of union representation.

Further, the potential reduction in members could reduce the political influence of unions — which arguably have been the single-most influential special-interest group in New York for years. Union members counter the outcome of the so-called Janus case and subsequent threat to membership will “galvanize” the labor movement.

By a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a 1977 law forcing  nonunion members to pay fees to the union representing them in collective bargaining. The court said the mandate violated the First Amendment rights of Mark Janus, the Illinois state worker who brought the lawsuit. Unions had argued nonmembers were benefiting from collective bargaining, legal representation and other perks of membership.

The outcome could have multiple consequences in New York, the most heavily unionized state in the nation.

Here, some 200,000 public employees pay union dues though they aren’t union members, according to the Empire Center, a conservative-leaning think tank in Albany. That is out of more than 1 million total public-employee union members. In theory, the non-members could soon quit paying dues, costing the unions millions of dollars. The unions currently collect more than $800 million annually in dues and fees.

And current union members could opt out, too, further reducing organized labor’s ranks.

When Michigan dropped mandated fees, public-employee membership dropped roughly 25 percent. Professional and civil-service unions saw the steepest decline while police, fire and corrections saw very little, according to the Empire Center and other reports.

Anticipating the Janus decision, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators approved a law in March to blunt some of the impact. Though it includes other aspects, the law most importantly allows unions to control and limit the time period for opting out of membership.

Further, it dictates that unions no longer have to provide services such as legal representation in lawsuits or disciplinary proceedings to nonmembers. Union leaders see this provision as providing a big incentive for nonmembers to join rather than drop out.

But experts said the state law will have but mild effect.

“It doesn’t mitigate the effect” of the Janus ruling, said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio, “because the effect is going to still be the same: Unions are going to be political weakened.”

He added: “It’s going to weaken their ability to foster their political agenda” even in New York.

The head of New York’s leading business lobby called the decision a “welcome victory for employee choice and freedom of speech.

Heather Briccetti, president of the Business Council of New York State, acknowledged that the state law enacted in March “significantly limits an employee’s time frame and ability to opt-out of dues deductions” and questioned whether it would be “challenged in court.” A spokesman said the council had no current plans to file a lawsuit.

Cuomo called the Supreme Court decision an “attempt to break unions.”

Despite the blow, the head of New York State United Teachers vowed the Janus case will make it “more aggressive” in elections and policy fights in Albany.

“I definitely think we will be more aggressive,” said NYSUT leader Andy Pallotta. “I think it galvanizes the union movement. It makes us stronger.”

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