Union Issues Debit Cards to Fight Trump Rule Choking Dues

(Bloomberg) -- Faced with a Trump administration proposal that could ban the government from deducting union dues from members’ pay, the largest U.S. home healthcare union is trying an unusual workaround to keep dues flowing: Launching its own debit card.

“We shouldn’t have to do it,” said Alaina Brooks, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which represents around 385,000 in-home healthcare workers in California. “We have to do this because it’s a solution to the attack that we are under.”

The pre-paid debit card, co-branded by SEIU and the payroll company ADP, is the latest in a flurry of tactics unions are trying as they struggle to maintain their rolls, funding, and political power amid a slew of legal and political threats. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a  5-4 decision (with all members of the majority appointed by Republicans) that mandatory union fees are unconstitutional throughout the public sector—where about half of union members work. That new reality means that government unions, while still required to represent all workers covered by a contract regardless of membership, can no longer require non-members to chip in.

For Medicaid-funded home health aides, who make up most of Local 2015’s membership, that’s been the case for years. Another Supreme Court ruling in 2014 (with the same partisan split) had already banned mandatory fees for such workers, who constitute a major share of SEIU’s growth in recent decades.

While other public sector unions are just now scrambling to adjust to the loss of mandatory fees from non-members, home health-aide unions are bracing for an even more provocative measure—a rule that could make it much more difficult to collect voluntary dues from members as well. (This is where the debit cards come in to play.)

In July, the Trump Administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a proposed rule restricting states’ ability to send money from Medicaid to “third parties.” Because Medicaid funds the salaries of home health aides, the agency said the rule could shut down the ability of states (who employ home health aides) to deduct about $70 million in annual dues from union members’ paychecks. In a statement, the agency’s acting Medicaid head, Tim Hill, said the proposed change “is intended to ensure that providers receive their complete payment” from Medicaid.

Labor leaders argue Republicans are trying to sabotage the ability of unions to fund themselves. Local 2015 expects to back potential legal challenges by states such as California in the event the Trump Administration adopts and seeks to enforce the rule.

In the meantime, to ensure the union keeps receiving member dues without requiring workers to write a check every month, the union is rolling out the aforementioned debit cards. Workers can authorize ADP to deposit their state paychecks onto the card so as to route their dues to SEIU. The union said the cards, which can also be used to store government benefits, pay bills and cash checks, will serve a useful purpose for members who lack bank accounts. ADP Vice President Anthony Peculic declined to provide details on the fees of the new cards, but said they are both low and avoidable.

Signing up members for the cards is one facet of a “recommitment” campaign Local 2015 is mounting this fall, in which hundreds of members are hoping to talk to as many as 100,000 co-workers about joining, or remaining in, the union. Such efforts are part of a slew of efforts by major public sector unions intended to strengthen their ties with millions of workers who now, under the June Supreme Court ruling, have the option of forgoing fees. While labor organizations pledge to defeat efforts by anti-union groups, they say they’re bracing for more to come.

“There is never a time when someone isn’t thinking about trying to undermine workers and their unions, so this won’t be the last attempt,” said Local 2015’s executive vice president Kim Evon. “I’m sure people will get back to the drawing board when this doesn’t work.”

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