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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono has an idea that she hopes will protect public sector workers against conservative attacks on organized labor and public sector unions.
On Thursday, the Hawaii senator announced new legislation that will grant basic labor rights to state and local government workers who want to unionize so that they can negotiate better pay and benefits.
Federal employees and private sector workers are already afforded that authority under U.S. labor law.
Hirono’s bill seeks to extend those guarantees to the states, including those that have enacted so-called “right to work” laws that have been blamed for weakening unions and reducing membership.
“These are not normal times,” Hirono said at a press conference with top Democrats and labor leaders to announce the bill. “We all need to come together to fight back against this all-out assault on working people.”
The legislation comes one day after the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that public sector unions can no longer force nonmembers to pay mandatory dues even if they benefit from collective bargaining.
An identical version was introduced in the House by Rep. Matt Cartwright, of Pennsylvania. Together the bills have about 50 cosponsors — all of them Democrats — including Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz.
While the measure does not circumvent the ruling, the announcement did serve as a rallying cry for Democrats who seek to rebalance the power structure in Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had harsh words for the high court at Thursday’s press conference, saying its conservative majority has been serving corporate interests over the American people.
She said the ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case “undermines democracy.”
She compared it to the court’s previous ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, a decision that equated campaign donations from unions and corporations to free speech and opened the floodgates for unlimited amounts of dark money to flow into politics.
“With this decision that was announced yesterday the Supreme Court became the Supreme Corp., that’s short for corporation,” Pelosi said.
“They did violence to our democracy by trying to diminish the voice of the working people.”
Democratic leaders are hoping to rally voters for the 2018 election and the upcoming fight over President Donald Trump’s next pick for the Supreme Court.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, is retiring at the end of July, and Trump has already indicated that he will appoint a conservative to take his spot. Given the Republican majority in the Senate it’s likely that Trump will get his wish.
Trump’s decision could have far-reaching ramifications for everything from abortion and gay rights to health care and affirmative action.
Although the political math doesn’t look good for Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to “fight all the way,” especially if Trump continues to take advice on his nominees from the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.
Schumer was particularly critical of Chief Justice John Roberts, and even called him out by name during Thursday’s press conference on the Janus ruling.
“When John Roberts came before us he said he’d call the balls and the strikes,” Schumer said. “The Janus decision was a political wild pitch nowhere near the strike zone. We Democrats are going to fight hard to undo it.”
The strong language was to be expected. Unions have long formed the backbone of the Democratic Party, and any threat to organized labor could spell trouble in future elections, particularly when it comes to fundraising.
But the message Schumer and others pushed focused on the pocketbook.
“In the past few days we’ve seen just how powerful the Supreme Court can be when it comes to lives of middle class Americans and those struggling to get there,” Schumer said. “The Janus decision is a gut punch to working people across America. It’s a gut punch to income inequality. It’s a gut punch to 50 years of progress. It’s a despicable decision.”
Hirono’s bill aims to put state and local government workers on the same footing as their federal colleagues and unionized employees in the private sector.
If signed into law it would enshrine into federal statutes the ability for public workers to form or join a labor organization that can bargain over issues such as wages, benefits and other terms and conditions, including grievance procedures.
The legislation would require state and local government employers to recognize the unions and to negotiate with them on a good faith basis.
It would provide for mediation and arbitration proceedings, while also setting up a mechanism for employees to voluntarily have their union dues deducted from their paychecks.
The bill might not have much impact in a state like Hawaii, where union protections are robust and membership is strong, although economists and other experts predicted Wednesday membership likely will dwindle as people decide against paying dues voluntarily.
Hirono said after Thursday’s press conference that the bill would set a minimum standard for states. But for a state like Hawaii, she said, it could prevent a backslide should the political landscape shift in the opposite direction.
“This is a galvanized moment for all of our unions,” Hirono said. “It might take some time, but we have to stay the course. Half the battle is showing up.”
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