Senate Bill 931 is threatening the rights, authority, and autonomy of California local governments, and a coalition of local government associations have responded.

The bill, written by Senator Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) is promoted as being a union buster, a way to protect public employee unions from antagonistic municipalities who hire lawyers and consultants to mitigate their impacts in municipal affairs. However, the bill uses broad language to create massive restrictions upon the power of local governments and their rights to seek and receive advice from legal counsel.

“Our organizations believe that SB 931 is an unreasonable and impermissible interference with attorney-client privilege and right to counsel,” wrote the coalition of local government associations in their letter of opposition.

The legislation proposes to prohibit union busting – which can be defined in part as intimidating, coercing, or interfering with the lawful actions of a union. It would amend not only the Meyers-Milas-Brown Act, but also the Ralph C Dills Act, the Education Employment Relations Act, and the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations act as well. Under the new terms, any public sector employee would be expressly prohibited from seeking counsel for any advice other than representation in court, administrative agency, arbitration tribunal, or collective bargaining.

However, the prohibitions outlined in the bill are broad. Specifically, it would, “prohibit public agencies from using public funds to pay external consultants or legal counsel.” Semantically, that leaves the bill open to interpretation and could inadvertently include advice sought or received from internal legal counsel.

The bill’s sponsor, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, claim that public employees are targeted for intimidation, harassment, and legal threats for “conducting themselves in a manner that is protected by law.” Moreover, the group says that using public funds to pay for these ‘union avoidance’ activities is a misappropriation of public money when budgets are being cut.

However, the coalition opposing the measure sees it differently. “Most public agency employers… are not seeking to curtain employee rights or the right of its workers to unionize. There are public Agency employers who act in good faith but do not have the expertise on staff to deal with negotiating.”

The Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement, and Social Security produced a bill analysis that outlines the framework of the debate, as well as the status quo that Senator Vargas’ bill would alter.

Under current law, the legislation that governs public employer/employee relationships provides protections against union busting. The analysis says that, “Public agencies and employee organizations must not interfere with, intimidate, restrain, coerce or discriminate against public employees because of an exercise of their guaranteed statutory rights.”

The Assembly Committee on Public Employees, Retirement, and Social Security passed the bill, which has been sent to the general Assembly, where it will face its up-or-down vote. The Senate has already passed the bill.