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Erie County Legislature acts to restrict access to union data

Mike Desmond

The Erie County Legislature locked itself up Thursday in a round of recesses, legislative clarifications and proposed amendments of proposed amendments. It was over a U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting public employee union rights to collect dues from non-members.

In its 5-4 Janus decision, the High Court said public unions can be required to represent workers who don't pay dues because they don't want to join a union. The ruling translates to a lot of money for unions, limiting what they can do.

An array of conservative groups is believed to be starting organized campaigns to collect personal data of union members so they can be reached by phone, email or postal mail to suggest they stop paying dues. The Democratic majority in the legislature wanted to restrict access to the data, as a new state law allows public employee unions to exclude those public employees from representation if they don't pay union dues.

Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin said county lawmakers had a tangled debate.

"We are not here to try to confuse people or to give misinformation, those of us that are sponsors of this bill," Baskin said, "but as it states, protects county workers from being vulnerable or be put in a position where their ability to be able to progress on the job can be weakened."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Legislators Pat Burke (left) and Joe Lorigo spar during Thursday's legislative session.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo led the fight over the issue, as Democrats attacked what they called"free riders" who receive union-negotiated benefits but don't pay union dues.

"You call them 'free riders' in the resolution," Lorigo said. "Do you think that people who choose not to pay union dues are 'free riders?' There's a story in the paper today that in Erie County alone $490,000 in union dues were paid by non-union members. So you think those people are 'free riders' now, if they choose not to pay those dues?"

"If they take services and then don't pay for them, crippling unions? Yes," Democratic legislator Patrick Burke answered.

The fight reflected years of antagonism between Lorigo and Burke, with the West Seneca Republican looking to next year's county elections and the South Buffalo Democrat running for State Assembly this fall in a district where unions are powerful.

Legislator John Bruso says he has been on both sides of the representation issue.

"I have had the opportunity to work as a union worker and as a management person in the same company," said the Depew Democrat. "I understand private sector and public sector's different, but when you talk about accountability and when you talk about having things work the right way, I think the intent of this is to allow people to know: Be careful what you ask for."

Eventually, the resolution passed along party lines.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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