At the Texas Capitol, the union dues bill is back

When the Texas Legislature convened in 2015, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, quietly filed a bill that proposed ending automatic payroll deductions for certain union and non-union organizations, a move that would have weakened those public employee groups. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 1968, died in a House committee after its chairman, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said time on the 140-day clock had run out. Similar legislation by Huffman is now back at the Capitol, and this time Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has declared it a legislative priority in the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled his support.

Senate Bill 13 and its companion bill in the House would end automatic union dues deductions for government employees — but leaves automatic deductions in place for police, firefighter and emergency first responder unions, as well as charitable organizations.

“I think it’s time for government to get out of the union business and [let unions] set up strategies to collect their dues that work for them,” Huffman said during a Senate floor debate in 2015. 

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Abbott highlighted the issue during his State of the State address last month, calling on the Legislature to send the legislation to his desk. “Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to support the collection of union dues,” Abbott said.

But opponents argue that Republican lawmakers are seeking to weaken state employee unions that traditionally back Democrats.

“Well, here we go again,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston who opposed Huffman’s bill in 2015 and is against the measure this session. “It’s an attack on free speech, on unions and on people who don’t agree with you.”

The state comptroller’s office made more than $6 million in payroll deductions for more than 45,000 state employees during fiscal year 2016, according to a recent Senate Committee on State Affairs interim report. The figures only include people employed directly by the state, not teachers or other municipal employees.

Texas is one of 27 right-to-work states in the nation, which means state employees can’t be required to join or pay dues to union organizations. Current state law allows public employees to voluntarily pay dues to union and non-union organizations by authorizing deductions from their paychecks, which makes the state the middleman in collecting those dues.

Opponents of the legislation say taxpayers aren’t paying to administer the deductions because state statutes require organizations to pay that expense. In addition, SB 13 opponents say the measure would put a burden on state employees because not everyone has a checking account or can remember to write checks to their unions.

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“The government should not be picking winners and losers in terms of who employees can donate their money to,” said Rick Levy, the secretary-treasurer for the Texas AFL-CIO.

Annie Spilman, legislative director for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, countered that it’s not the government’s role to collect dues for unions, adding, “This bill takes away no First Amendment rights or freedom of association; all this bill says is that each group needs to collect its own dues.”

The state would continue assisting police, firefighter and emergency first responder unions under Huffman’s proposed legislation. The same measure was included in Huffman’s bill in 2015, and when Democratic senators asked Huffman what motivated the exemption of those groups from her bill, Huffman said, “Those specific groups conduct their activities in a somewhat different way” — but she didn’t specify those differences.

Garcia said if the legislation was really about principle, it would apply to all unions, and some firefighter and police organizations agree.

“This legislation is simply a divide-and-conquer union-busting stunt,” Patrick Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, said in a statement to the Tribune. Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, said he challenged anyone to find a city in Texas that supported SB 13, and John Riddle, president of the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, told the Tribune he believed Huffman’s bill is trying to “silence the voice of a certain group of people.”

Huffman said she has a “great opportunity” to pass her legislation this session, given that it’s been declared a priority by both the lieutenant governor and governor. 

But Levy, the AFL-CIO official, doesn’t see the bills gaining momentum this year, adding he thought it was a “non-issue” to most Texans. 

“What’s so frustrating is of all things this state needs to be dealing with, trying to tell public employees who they can and can’t give their money to is not at the top of anybody’s list,” he said. “This is a blip, and I don’t think ordinary voters and citizens care at all.” 

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Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The Texas Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would make it tougher for public sector labor groups to collect dues by prohibiting state agencies and local governments from deducting union dues from many paychecks.
  • An unexpected end-of-session skirmish over payroll deductions for union dues pits Republicans against Democrats, business against labor, and presents lawmakers with one of those votes that might be important in next year’s elections.
  • Legislation that would have blocked public employees from paying union or association dues with paycheck deductions failed last session. But the Senate is reopening the issue, and it could play against a powerful House chairman up for reelection next year.