Suppose you drove a bulldozer for a living. A couple contractors in town hire you to move some dirt on their job sites. Then the mayor comes and tells you to that five other contractors in town want you to move some dirt for them.
“Great!” you shout over the Diesel roar. “How much are they paying?”
“Nothing!” the mayor shouts back. “It’s just a rule here: if you work for one guy, you have to work for everybody, whether they pay you or not!”
This isn’t some weird eminent-domain nightmare. It’s what happens regularly in South Dakota and other anti-union states to labor unions. Our “right-to-work” law (and please, put “right to work” in quotes, because such statutes are created not to protect workers’ rights but to weaken labor unions) mean South Dakota workers cannot be required to pay dues to unions representing their workplaces. However, the National Labor Relations Act requires that unions represent all employees, member and non-member alike, in collective bargaining. Non-members get contract negotiation services without having to pay for them.
Jason George, special projects director for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, says that forcing any organization to provide services for free isn’t fair. Thus, Local 49 may petition for the following initiative to be placed on South Dakota’s 2016 ballot:
Section 1. Notwithstanding any other provisions of law, an organization, corporate or nonprofit, has the right to charge a fee for any service provided by the organization.
Section 2. The effective date of this Act is July 1, 2017 [proposed ballot measure, sponsored by Scott Niles, released by Attorney General Marty Jackley, 2015.09.04].
In an interview with Dakota Free Press Tuesday, George said this simple measure would allow unions to charge nonmembers “fair-share” dues (and those aren’t mocking quote marks), a discounted fee representing the actual expenses of contract negotiations and any other services required by law but excluding the amount unions would spend on political activities to which nonmembers might object. Minnesota, Illinois, and other states that respect the work of labor unions allow such fair-share dues. South Dakota, apparently, does not. George says the proposed initiative would not change South Dakota’s “right-to-work” statutes; it would simply end the strange unfairness of the government forcing organizations like Local 49 to provide services without compensation.
George says Local 49 represents over 13,000 heavy equipment operators, men and women driving bulldozers, backhoes, cranes, and other big machines in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Our anti-union laws mean membership in South Dakota is small, numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands.
But George says the South Dakota members of Local 49 are pushing hard for the union leadership to green-light this petition drive. South Dakota’s heavy equipment operators are fed up with the anti-union sentiment they hear in the national press (like GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker saying “collective bargaining is not a right” and vowing to eliminate federal employees’ unions), and George says they are “eager to push back.” Unions have been “kicked in the teeth for too long by people who don’t have an understanding of what we do,” says George. With this proposed initiative, South Dakota Local 49 members are ready to “have that conversation with the public” to tell people why unions “are still a valued part of society” providing “real benefits to workers.”
George says he is unaware of any similar ballot initiatives or legislative pushes in other states. This proposal is the first ballot measure he can recall Local 49 considering. His union is considering backing this petition drive here simply because the South Dakota membership is pushing for it. George says there is no political consideration here, no coordination with any other ballot question committee or party in South Dakota. He says there’s not even much money in it for Local 49: with union membership already strong among South Dakota’s heavy equipment operators (because Local 49 provides good value for the dues dollar, says George), additional fair-share fees from the few nonmembers would not swell the union coffers. George says this initiative is simply “about what’s right and wrong… more about the principle here than the dollars and cents.”
Local 49 is on a tight timeline to turn principle into action: if the elected union leaders decide to launch the petition drive (and Secretary of State Shantel Krebs has not formally approved their petition yet), they have until November 9, less than two months, to gather 13,871 signatures. They’ve missed fair season, so they’ll have to hit the sidewalks and Schmeckfests pretty hard. Plus, they’ll be bumping elbows at those events with circulators for ten other measures (although I’d love to see some of those tractor operators bump into the skeezy scammers circulating the fake 18%-rate-cap petition).
George does note that Attorney General Jackley pleasantly surprised Local 49 by releasing the explanation for their measure in about a month, half of the 60-day period he is allowed to sit on ballot measures for review. Local 49 submitted their proposal to the A.G. in early August, so he could have left them waiting until early October, with a scant month left to circulate.
While Local 49 says their ballot initiative is about principle and not politics, adding their proposal to the 2016 ballot would add an interesting dimension to our election-year conversation and activism. George is right: it’s time to challenge South Dakota’s anti-union attitude. Pointing out the basic unfairness of requiring unions to provide services for free is about as capitalist an argument as one can make for fair treatment of unions. Mobilizing another union could rouse some Democratic voters. And what better face could we put on labor than the folks running our bulldozers and backhoes?
Keep an eye out for Local 49’s petition. If they circulate, for Pete’s sake, don’t argue with the guy driving the bulldozer. Do what they ask… and pay them for their work!
Related Update 08:51 CDT: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014, out of South Dakota’s 363,000 wage and salary workers, only 18,000, 4.9%, belonged to labor unions. 22,000 South Dakota workers were represented by unions, including those who “report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union or an employee association contract.”
4.9% ties us with Virginia for the eighth-lowest union membership rate in the country. The lowest is 1.9% in North Carolina. The highest is 24.6% in New York.