‘You better be ready for a fight’: Labor union warns Legislature not to target workers’ rights in Utah

After labor unions united together this year, Utah lawmakers failed to pass a pair of bills aimed at public employees and how union dues could be collected.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) People in the committee room raise their hands when asked who was against bill HB 285, at the Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Pushback by Utah’s labor unions was enough to derail a pair of bills that aggressively targeted workers during this year’s legislative session. A show of force from Utah’s labor unions likely played a big hand in the outcome.

HB429 sought to eliminate career path protections for new state employees, reclassifying them as “at will.” Right now, after a 6-month probationary period, state workers can only be fired “for cause.” The bill squeaked through the House of Representatives on a close vote, but died in a Senate committee after hundreds of Union members showed up in person to oppose the bill.

HB285 required unions that represented public employees to hold a recertification vote every five years and required union members who wanted union dues deducted from their paychecks to opt in every year. After it was narrowly passed by a House committee, it never came up for a vote on the House floor and is finished for this session. Union members turned out to oppose the bill during the committee hearing.

South Jordan Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher, the bill’s sponsor, told The Salt Lake Tribune then that HB285 “provides better safeguards between public labor unions and public employees. … I want to make sure we’re protecting public employees and protecting public resources.”

Jeff Worthington, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, says the massive turnout of union members at the Capitol this year was a message and a warning.

“We made our intentions known,” Worthington told the Tribune on Tuesday. “We let members know these bills were trying to harm us, and we weren’t going to take it lying down.”

This is not the first time that Utah lawmakers have tried to undermine public sector unions. During the 1998 and 1999 sessions, bills to strip the Utah Education Association and Utah Public Employees Association of the ability to have member dues for political action committees deducted from paychecks were introduced but failed to pass.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan presents HB 285, to the committee, at the Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

In 2001, lawmakers passed the so-called “paycheck protection” bill, which immediately drew a lawsuit. A coalition of public-sector unions sued over the law, eventually winning a $1 million judgment against the state.

This year’s HB285 was similar to a sweeping Florida anti-union bill that lawmakers there approved last year. In the ensuing year, at least 30 public sector unions have been dismantled, according to Orlando Weekly.

“We could see the writing on the wall of what they [legislators] were doing,” Worthington said. “They tried to sell it as targeting union dues deductions, but the reality was all about the ability to decertify unions.”

Reclassifying state employees as “at will” appeared to be an important policy goal of Gov. Spencer Cox this session. The plan to remove protections for those employees was tucked into his budget proposal that he unveiled prior to the start of the 2024 session.

Proponents argued that HB429 would make state employees more efficient and modernize the state workforce. Critics said removing career service protections would only streamline the ability to fire employees.

Labor unions have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Last year, the Teamsters Union successfully negotiated big wage increases for UPS employees, avoiding a strike that could have major impacts on the U.S. economy, CNBC reported. Last September, President Joe Biden was the first sitting president to walk a picket line when he joined striking United Auto Workers in Michigan.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Worthington, President of Utah AFL-CIO makes a comment during the committee meeting on HB 285, at the Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Nationwide, 14.4 million American workers —about 10% of the labor force — were union members in 2023, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year that statistics were available, 20.1% of workers were union members. In Utah, 3.9% of workers were union members in 2022. Last year, that number rose slightly to 4.1%.

Nationwide, 32.5% of public-sector workers were part of a union in 2023, compared to just 6% of those in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Worthington says this year’s anti-worker bills caught local labor leaders slightly flat-footed, but their ability to muster opposition on short notice showed that labor unions still wield significant influence in state politics. He adds that organized labor is already making plans to go on offense if Utah lawmakers try something similar next year.

“I hope we’ve sent a strong message that if you’re going to bring anything against the unions, you better be ready for a fight,” Worthington said.