Senate Democrats rallied Thursday behind a bill intended to help public-sector unions maintain or grow membership in the face of an adverse decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On a 22-13 vote, the Senate approved and sent to the House a measure sought by organized labor as a counterweight to the 5-4 opinion issued three years ago in Janus v. AFSCME.
Janus reversed a 41-year-old precedent that empowered public-sector unions to assess agency fees on employees who benefit from union-negotiated wages and benefits, but are not union members. Public-sector unions are an important ally of Democrats in Connecticut.
Echoing measures passed in other pro-labor states since Janus, Senate Bill 908 would bar public employers from discouraging or deterring new or existing employees from joining or remaining in a union.
It also would require the employers to ease access to new employees by notifying unions of new hires, providing home contact information, access to orientation meetings, use of government email and additional time to meet.
All 12 Republicans voted against the bill, joined by Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury. Absent was Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who negotiates with public employees as the first selectman of his community.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, called the bill “one of the most important” of the year and “an effort to mitigate as far as we can, as a matter of law, the unfortunate and corrosive U.S Supreme Court decision in Janus.”
The top Democrat and Republican on the legislature’s Labor and and Public Employees Committee offered starkly different assessments of the bill’s reach, whether it tilts the scale in favor of unions or merely assures access.
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, the committee co-chair, said the bill clarifies the rights of unions to communicate with members and prospective members.
“This bill doesn’t require union membership,” said Kushner, a retired UAW executive.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the ranking Republican on Labor, said employees who have no wish to hear a union pitch must still submit to meeting with a union representative under the bill, which also undermines the position of public employers.
“This bill limits the rights of workers, it does not expand the rights of workers,” Sampson said.
Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, a retired police officer who is his community’s mayor, said the requirements of the bill, particularly the right of union representatives to be present at orientation, would complicate and potentially delay hiring.
“This is a giveaway to unions,” Champagne said.
By ending the agency fees, the Janus decision gave employees an incentive to leave unions, a step that would save them dues without incurring an assessment of an agency fee.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, a lawyer who once belonged to an AFSCME affiliate as a state employee, said that was a choice he made freely, without coercion.
“I believe that this bill takes that away. It takes away that choice, that freedom,” Kelly said.
Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, a former first selectman, said the bill codifies in state law things that should be subjected to collective bargaining.
The debate echoed the testimony at a public hearing on the bill: Unions and their allies called the measure an important reiteration of the right to organize, while government representatives called it intrusive and burdensome. The bill was opposed by the Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
Kushner said she believed those concerns would prove to be overwrought.
“For me, after a lifetime of organizing workers and representing workers, this bill to me is very personal and very important,” Kushner said. “I’m very proud of our state, because I think we’re a state that does believe in collective bargaining.”