Kansas police, firefighter and teacher organizations denounce anti-union House bill

Think tanks want it harder to join, easier to quit public employee units

By: - March 1, 2021 10:07 am
Jake Miller, a labor lawyer representing Working Kansas Alliance, warned an anti-union bill in the Kansas House touted by conservative think tanks placed unnecessary burdens on public employee organizations in a right-to-work state such as Kansas where no one has to join a union as a condition of employment. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Jake Miller, a labor lawyer representing Working Kansas Alliance, warned an anti-union bill in the Kansas House touted by conservative think tanks placed unnecessary burdens on public employee organizations in a right-to-work state such as Kansas where no one has to join a union as a condition of employment. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Labor attorney Jake Miller warned legislation characterized by a network of conservative think tanks as sound bookkeeping to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling was actually a political overreach intended to deter participation in public employee unions in Kansas.

“To me, this is a waste of the committee’s time,” said Miller, who represents Working Kansas Alliance and practices labor law in Kansas City, Missouri. “Remember you’re going after cops, firefighters, corrections officers, electrical workers, snowplow drivers and everyone else.”

He told the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee there was no legitimacy to arguments by the Kansas Policy Institute, Illinois Policy Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce that the 2021 Legislature had to pass a law in response to Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. That 2018 ruling prohibited public-sector unions from requiring payment of fees by workers who weren’t union members, but were beneficiaries of union representation in terms of working conditions and compensation.

Miller’s point: Kansas has been a right-to-work state since 1958. Union participation is voluntary. Fees can’t be forced upon a nonmember. There have been no lawsuits tied to the court’s decision filed in Kansas.


Not so fast

No less than Janus v. AFSCME plaintiff Mark Janus, a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute, weighed in to reject Miller’s analysis. Janus told legislators House Bill 2354 logically followed the Supreme Court’s affirmation the First Amendment was to be interpreted to mean public employees didn’t have to pay a government union as a condition of employment. The high court essentially brought right-to-work to public employees across the nation.

Vincent Vernuccio, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, supports Kansas House Bill 2354 placing new limitations on public union organizing to conform to interpretations of a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“I understand public-sector unions do not like this legislation. They will tell you it is burdensome for employees,” Janus said. “The proposal we’re discussing here today is important because it protects the rights that were restored by the Supreme Court’s decision in my case.”

Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center in Michigan, said organizations around the country urging passage of legislation like the House bill in Kansas maintained that public employers could be compliant with Janus only after informing workers about their right to pay or not pay union fees and giving them a regular opportunity to renew their consent directly to the employer. That means a new payroll deduction form each year for purposes of paying union dues.

In addition, he said, public employees in Kansas and other states should be held responsible for allowing a person to exit a union and cease deduction of union fees or dues from paychecks at any time. Under the House bill, public employers and professional employee organizations would be responsible for reminding employees annually of their right to stop paying union dues.

“House Bill 2354 safeguards this right by ensuring that public employees are informed about their rights on a yearly basis and gives employees the opportunity to make a fresh choice on whether to pay the union annually,” Vernuccio said. “It guarantees employers have the required evidence of consent by having public employees tell their employers directly that they wish to pay union dues, instead of the employer taking the union’s word for it.”


KNEA in crosshair

Organizations opposed to the bill include the Kansas State Council of Fire Fighters, the Kansas State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers, the League of Kansas Municipalities, the City of Wichita and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

Dave Trabert, of the Kansas Policy Institute, said a House bill adding new restrictions on public employee organizations should be viewed as respect for individual rights rather than a derogatory comment on unions. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

The primary target of the legislation, however, is the Kansas National Education Association. It represents thousands of educators and remains one of the largest public employee unions in Kansas.

“Frankly, we think this legislation is unnecessary,” said KNEA’s Mark Desetti. “It is simply here to harass union members and, in the eyes of its proponents, to block union membership and to discourage people from joining unions.”

Dave Trabert, who works for the Kansas Policy Institute think tank, said KNEA required members to provide to local units of the association a written request between Aug. 1 to Aug. 31 to revoke a payroll deduction for membership dues. He also alleged some employees were required to sign a form that “appears to be an attempt to intimidate the employee from resigning.”

“Our support for is not a derogatory comment on unions,” he said. “It is simply about respecting each public employee’s constitutional right. Constitutional rights exist absolutely and cannot be subject to limitation by collective bargaining agreements or any other organizational practice.”

Garry Sigle, executive director of the nonunion Kansas Association of American Educators in Manhattan, said Olathe public schools set an Aug. 10 opt-out deadline while the Wichita district mandated a request to quit bargaining unit had to be filed by Aug. 30. The arbitrary opt-out periods make it difficult for teachers to exercise their constitutional right to depart a union, he said.


Law enforcement

Matt Blassingame, chief steward of the Topeka Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said he represented 500 active and retired law enforcement officers in Shawnee County. He said the lodge served 270 bargaining unit members of the Topeka Police Department, including all 24 command staff members of management.

He said membership in the lodge was voluntary and those opting in agreed to pay dues. If a member could leave at any time without paying for benefits as agreed, other members would be compelled to pay additional costs, he said.

The Kansas State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 3,900 law enforcement officers, is opposed to Kansas House legislation imposing new requirements on public employee unions related to dues collections and withdrawing as a member. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“We have 100% membership in our lodge because we offer great benefits and services to our membership,” Blassingame said. “Men and woman of our lodge work hard and jeopardize their safety daily for the citizens of Kansas. Please do not make it harder on us, and costlier to them, to provide the benefits they deserve. Topeka FOP Lodge #3 and its members oppose the passage of this bill.”

Mik Shanks, president of the Kansas State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the organization representing 3,900 members of FOP lodges in Kansas stood in “strong” opposition.

The law could interfere with legal defense services provided members involved in critical incidents and potentially unravel life insurance policies providing protection to members forced to pay the ultimate price for their service, Shanks said.

“If members can quit without first notifying the FOP, the result would be a logistical nightmare for our treasurers and secretaries who volunteer for these positions in our local lodges,” Shanks said. “House Bill 2354 would create an undue administrative burden on them to retrace member lists to determine who has dropped and when it occurred.”


Industrial view

John Garretson, business manager with the Local Union 304 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Topeka, said the local represented 2,400 workers across 23 different contractors, including workers at Evergy, Kansas Gas Service and City of Chanute workers.

He said people joining the union should be accountable for their decision and not be allowed to jump out and back in at their leisure. It would be fair to union members and employers to set the duration of an agreement at one year to ease the administrative burden, he said.

John Garretson of Local Union 304 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said a pending House bill altering state law on public employee unions would create an "administrative nightmare." (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)
John Garretson of Local Union 304 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said a pending House bill altering state law on public employee unions would create an “administrative nightmare.” (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

“Imagine, for a moment, if employees could change their minds on their health care whenever they wanted. Would that not amount to an administrative nightmare? There is a reason that most companies have open enrollment only once per year,” Garretson said.

Ty Drago, of the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers, said the union was against the campaign to weaken the collective voice of public employees. The bill would improperly interfere with private, voluntary contractual agreements about payroll deductions for a distinct period of time, he said.

He said the legislation appeared to violate Kansas law providing public employees the right to form, join and participate in activities of unions and the right to refuse to be part of those organizations.

The House bill will “place a thumb on the scale attempting to sway employees from joining the union, which does not allow free choice,” Drago said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.