Labor organizers and anti-union activists square off again on membership, dues issues

Kansas police, firefighter, education and public worker bargaining units oppose bill

By: - March 15, 2022 4:28 pm
Sen. Renee Erickson, the Wichita Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, warned a conferee it was improper to refer to someone else testifying in support of a labor union regulation bill a liar. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Renee Erickson, the Wichita Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, warned a conferee it was improper to refer to someone else testifying in support of a labor union regulation bill a liar. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Tension associated with legislation affirming right-to-work laws in Kansas on union membership and payment of dues reflected the failure of proponents to enact comparable bills and irritation of opponents repeatedly called to wade into the issue.

Contents of Senate Bill 511 under consideration Tuesday by the Senate Commerce Committee would require public-sector workers be reminded each year of a right to quit unions and make a choice each year about paying union dues. The measure was praised by  conservative policy organizations and denounced by union firefighters, law enforcement officers, educators and other public employees.

Sarah LaFrenz, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas and the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said members of the Legislature devoted months to passage of laws designed to protect workers from burdensome government mandates linked to COVID-19.

“We guess that concern was just a bunch of hot air though, since this bill is all about the government telling people how to spend their hard-earned paychecks and mandating anti-union propaganda. So much for giving people the freedom to decide for themselves,” LaFrenz said.

She said the Kansas Constitution made clear since the 1950s that unions were responsible for representing all covered employees regardless of whether individuals paid dues to the organization.

Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy analyst with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the Senate bill was necessary because a state law would add to existing layers of protection for a person’s First Amendment rights in relation to union membership. The Mackinac Center, based in Midland, Michigan, is part of a network of libertarian think tanks delving into state policy issues, including the Kansas Policy Institute.

“It codifies the process by which an employee may exercise this right and safeguards that person’s ability to exercise it at any time,” Vernuccio said. “It does this by having the public employees tell their employers directly that they wish to have money taken from their paycheck, instead of employers taking the union’s word for it.”

Dave Trabert, of the Kansas Policy Institute, said the bill would bring state statute into conformity with a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2018 known as Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He said some union members in Kansas were still subjected to a 180-day dues withholding requirement after they gave notice of intent to end union membership.

Jake Miller of the Working Kansas Alliance said no lawsuits had been filed in Kansas challenging a union’s refusal to release a member. Union officials have been going through an annual “song and dance” in response to assertions by Trabert and others the bill would do anything for worker rights, he said.

“I’m not going to sit here like the proponents are and lie to you,” Miller said.

Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican and chairwoman of the commerce committee, scolded Miller and reminded the audience no one was allowed to accuse other conferees of lying or misrepresenting information.

Under Senate Bill 511, there would be a mechanism by which an employee could halt contributions to professional employee or public employee organizations. Authority for union dues deductions from paychecks would have to be granted annually by workers with use of special forms.

Indiana passed similar legislation in 2021, but a court subsequently issued an injunction blocking implementation of a section of that law.

Casey Slaughter, president of the 4,200-member Kansas State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, said the organization was opposed to Senate Bill 511 because it would allow membership to be terminated without prior notice to the union. It would create logistical difficulties for local lodges, Slaughter said.

Slaughter said collection of dues through payroll deductions enabled lodge members to enroll in group life insurance policies and guaranteed access to legal aid if involved in critical incidents.

“With the demonizing and defunding of police, our ability to collect dues through payroll deduction is more important now than ever,” Slaughter said.

John Nave, executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO, said the bill was an attempt to “harass, infringe and restrict hard-working public-sector employees such as teachers, firefighters, state employees and corrections officers to freely participate in unions without fear of retaliation.”

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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.