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SD Dozer Drivers May Challenge Anti-Union Misperceptions with “Fair Share” Ballot Initiative

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.

IUOELOcal49Jason 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.


  1. Porter Lansing 2015-09-16 11:27

    There are 13,000 represented operators (a highly skilled and respected occupation) and 13,871 signatures are needed?
    Just as an aside, unions not only raise the pay of all at the job but they will go to bat full force if a member is threatened with dismissal. Union lawyers will come in from across USA and a strike threat is quite a bargaining chip when working to get only a warning, not a dismissal from management.

  2. bearcreekbat 2015-09-16 11:51

    If unions stopped calling their organization a “Union” and started calling it a “Corporation,” would conservative heads start exploding?

  3. O 2015-09-16 11:58

    I have to ask, with the rhetoric about unions improving the quality of life for so many Americans, how many on THIS blog actually belong to one; how many choose to to? How many make the choice to act in accordance to rhetoric?

    I belong to a union.

  4. Craig 2015-09-16 16:26

    …”they will go to bat full force if a member is threatened with dismissal”.

    This is part of the reason why many people have a bad perception of unions, because for years we have heard stories about how a bad cop is protected by his or her union and is never fired even though they have a pattern of misconduct, or how a union teacher cannot be fired even after it is shown they manipulated test scores (which is fraud to the layperson).

    Unions serve a valuable function in protecting worker’s rights, but sometimes they simply go too far and I feel it harms credibility. This, along with 30 years of anti-union legislation has resulted in a dramatic decrease of workers being part of a local union.

    Today, many unions have an image problem due to a combination of strict application of rules and a political climate that isn’t as supportive as it once was. It boggles the mind to think that many have more positive opinions of corporations that they do of unions, when the unions are the organizations tasked with protecting the common worker.

    Perhaps one day we will have a fair balance between worker rights and the rights of the employer – I’m just not sure either side of this issue has a true vision for what “fair” is.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-16 16:36

    Sorry, O, I’ve been one of the moochers. I’ve never joined SDEA, a habit that started back when I was a Republican and thoughtlessly bought the anti-union rhetoric. Next time I’m offered a contract, that will change.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-16 16:38

    Porter, yes, 13,000 union members, but that’s in the tri-state area. South Dakota’s Local 49 numbers in the hundreds, not the thousands. But that members ship will be a start. And if hundreds of union members each get 20–40 signatures, then they’re in business.

    Interesting, Craig, that unions have gotten a bad rep from representing their members. Is that the same thing that’s happened to lawyers?

  7. Porter Lansing 2015-09-16 16:39

    Oh, I see. PS … proud of your choice to choose representation.

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-09-16 20:55

    Whenever possible I’ve joined the appropriate union, and been very glad I had the opportunity to do so.

  9. W R Old Guy 2015-09-17 15:44

    I have been management and I have been a union member when I wasn’t. Are there problems with union representation? Yes, but a lot less than the problems I experienced by agency as a manager.

    The federal unions cannot strike or negotiate wages and long list of other things. They are also required to represent non-union members. Senior management does not like unions because they file grievances and law suits on management when they violate regulation or laws.

  10. Craig 2015-09-17 16:49

    “Interesting, Craig, that unions have gotten a bad rep from representing their members. Is that the same thing that’s happened to lawyers?”

    That is probably a fair comparison. Sort of like members of Congress. People like the idea of union representation, lawyers, and Congresspeople – however in practice people in these roles tend to push a view too far and suffer from rigid thinking, corruption, and abuses of power.

    For example – I believe many appreciate the idea of a union and understand they need leadership, but when a union brings out the guns in support of an obvious poor employee who has had a pattern of misconduct or sheer abuses of power then it harms the reputation of the union, because that incident becomes the face.

    Many appreciate what lawyers do, but when we hear of an ambulance chasing attorney who sues a business after someone slips on their immaculate concrete sidewalk – it harms the image of the profession. Any frivolous lawsuit tends to reflect negatively upon the profession even though there is a client behind each of those lawsuits.

    Finally we have Congress. We see story after story about the historically low approval ratings of Congress, yet we continue to see the same Congresspeople elected year after year. Another example of people disliking the abuses of power and corruption even though they still appreciate the concept of representation and the idea of government.

  11. W R Old Guy 2015-09-17 18:21

    Unions know when they have a problem member to defend but they must also see that the is member given the protections required by law just the same as in court. The old adage “You can’t fire a federal worker or union member” is not true. I have helped fire several. You just have to make sure everything is documented the laws were followed.

  12. bearcreekbat 2015-09-17 18:26

    WR Old Guy, your last comment seems pretty accurate: “You can’t fire a federal worker or union member” is not true.” I enjoy appreciating the truth in your comment – thanks!

  13. barry freed 2015-09-18 07:08

    Cory, you could join the SDEA and you would still, not be a Union member.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-18 08:09

    Wait a minute: SDEA isn’t a union?

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-18 11:53

    Everyone, even bums, deserves due process. Unions help workers, even bums, get due process. Unions can’t pick and choose who gets representation any more than courts can pick who gets due process.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-19 09:28

    I’m not convinced, Barry. As Porter says, SDEA aligns much more with your article’s list of common features of a union than an association.

    Interestingly, SDEA makes this ambiguous statement on its Mission page:

    Whether you call us your union or your professional organization, we have a long and wonderful tradition that spans over a century. Since our founding, SDEA members have been at the center of every struggle to advance the finest of American dreams – a high quality public education for every child [SDEA, “Mission,” downloaded 2015.09.19].

    NEA refers to itself as a union. NEA discusses Union Rights. NEA says “What our members have achieved through union membership and collective bargaining is a long, impressive list that benefits students, faculty and staff alike.”

    Barry, if you are correct, are you trying to say that SDEA and its local units are not subject to South Dakota’s “right to work” laws and that SDEA could thus push for mandatory membership for all teachers in contract negotiations?

  17. Porter Lansing 2015-09-19 09:53

    As an aside: If there’s ever been a candidate more suited to become Union management than Mr. Heidelberger, I’ve not met them. Give this man the power of a “working group” behind him and watch the 1% run to hide. ??

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-09-19 20:34

    Thanks, Porter! Imagine the fun the right wing would have demonizing me as a “union boss”… or “union thug.”

    I did direct one-act plays for contest at Montrose. The kids did pretty good work… but I did break a clipboard every now and then.

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