Is it ‘union busting’? Bill moves to House floor, over worker objections

Do tighter restrictions on labor unions protect workers or harm them? Lawmakers will have to decide.

Members of a Utah Legislature committee told three rooms of public employees and union members — some in hard hats, neon vests and government-issued uniforms — that a bill they approved Friday would not jeopardize their unions or their membership.

Some of those employees, who filled the meeting room and two overflow rooms, could not hide their disdain.

“Now he’s calling us stupid?” someone in the crowd muttered after Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, seemed to imply that some unions had too much control over their members.

Brammer, toward the end of a two-hour hearing of the House Business and Labor Committee, noted that when the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, “says this is about protecting the public employees, the union members snicker. … And I get that they feel like [unions] are what protects the public employees. But there are circumstances where the tail wags the dog. And the unions are supposed to be the tail. And the public employees should be controlling the union.”

Before a hearing room filled mostly with union supporters — and with commenters opposing the bill outnumbering those in favor by 21 to 4 — the committee, by a 8-4 vote, passed an amended version of HB285 to the House floor.

The bill, which Teuscher called a “compromise,” would require labor unions that represent public-sector employees to recertify every five years, and would prohibit public employers from deducting union dues from paychecks unless union members “affirmatively” opt in every year. The bill, if enacted, would also prohibit unions or their members from using “public money or property from union organizing or union activity.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, presents HB285 to the House Business and Labor Committee, at the Utah Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

The bill, Teuscher told The Salt Lake Tribune, “provides better safeguards between public labor unions and public employees. … I want to make sure we’re protecting public employees and protecting public resources.”

Teuscher said the bill would give public employees more agency in choosing which union represents them — or if they want union representation at all. The added pressure of recertifying every five years, he said, could make unions “be more responsive” to their members.

“If everyone loves their union, great,” Teuscher told The Tribune. “If not, they’ll be able to have a vote and select someone different.”

Those testifying against the bill Friday said Teuscher had crafted a solution in search of a problem.

“Let me make very clear: Utah is a right-to-work state,” said Sara Jones, government relations program director for Utah Education Association (UEA), the state’s major teacher’s union. “Every member of an association has voluntarily joined. ... I question the rationale for why this bill is necessary.”

Union workers and lobbyists said the bill would create more barriers to union membership and organizing — and dismissed Teuscher’s assurances that HB285 was not anti-union.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, makes a comment during a hearing on HB285 before the House Business and Labor Committee, at the Utah Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

“This bill is naked union busting,” said Nick Godfrey, a union member and private-sector employee who said it was important to “stand in solidarity” with his “brothers and sisters in the public-sector who are under attack. … The only reason it’s being watered down is because the sponsor is feeling the pressure from the workers who are proud of their jobs and proud of their unions.”

The so-called “watered down” components included making the recertification every five years, instead of three, as the bill’s first version did. The first version also prohibited public employers from deducting union dues from paychecks under any circumstances; the amended version would require the annual opt-in for making such a deduction.

Teuscher said such an opt-in would be easy to do, and could be automated — like renewing a subscription service.

Godfrey pushed back on that. “To compare union dues to subscriptions could only come from someone who’s never worked a union job,” he said.

Jeff Worthington, president of Utah AFL-CIO, told The Tribune that the payroll deduction barrier, plus the recertification process is a union-chilling cocktail. He said he fears unions would lose members who fail to pay their dues on time, and if the unions lose enough members — unions require just over 50% participation — the state could deem them unnecessary and decertify them.

“That’s what [Teuscher] is shooting for,” Worthington said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Worthington, President of Utah AFL-CIO makes a comment during a House Business and Labor Committee hearing on HB285, at the Utah Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Debating over public-safety workers

Teuscher’s amended version also aimed to exclude public safety employees — such as police officers, correctional officers and firefighters — from the bill’s rules, Teuscher said, after speaking to some of those employees.

“We ask public safety employees to put their lives on the line,” he said, adding that the unions that represent them have different responsibilities.

One Utah Highway Patrol employee who testified Friday spoke in favor of that amendment, but other public safety workers — including correctional officers — decried it.

“I thank Rep. Teuscher for excluding my members, and if we could exempt all the other labor unions and organizations, then I’d totally support the bill,” said Jack Tidrow, president of the President of Professional Firefighters Union of Utah. “My members, we don’t stand behind our teachers, maintenance workers and everybody else. We stand beside them.”

Lawmakers struck the public safety amendment after Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the exclusion lays bare the bill’s anti-union position.

“If this bill is really about protecting employees, you would never leave out public safety employees,” said King, who is running against Gov. Spencer Cox. “What’s really going on is an effort to cherry-pick the most sympathetic group of public employees to decrease opposition to the bill.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, speaks against HB285 during a House Business and Labor Committee hearing, at the Utah Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Utah has some of the lowest union participation rates in the country, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 4% of Utah’s workforce was represented by a union in 2023, the bureau’s data shows, compared to 10% nationwide. And public-sector employees are far more likely to be union members; union membership rate of public-sector workers was more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector employees, according to BLS.

Union members also earn slightly more, on average, than non-union workers, though BLS notes earnings data do not account for “many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences,” such as age distribution, industry and geography of union members versus nonunion employees. But opponents of the bill drew a direct comparison.

“We are dealing, in my humble opinion, with one of the great threats to our country that we’ve seen over the last few decades, and that is this widening gap between people of great wealth and income and people without,” King said. “Unions are one of the most important factors that we can strengthen to try to mitigate that.”

Public comment was capped after 40 minutes. After the committee passed the bill to the full House, the conversation continued in the halls and steps of the Utah State Capitol.

“We’re still in this fight,” Worthington said after the meeting.

Teuscher told the remaining public after two hours of discussion that “I’ve been working on this for over a year, trying to get the policy right. And it’s a tricky one. There’s a lot of opinions on every side.”

He said the bill’s intent “is to help strengthen our public employees ... and ensure that our public resources are best maintained.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.