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Labor Cries Foul; New Group Wants To Break New York's Public Workers Unions

ALBANY, NY (WSKG) - A newly formed group is reaching out to public worker union members in New York, informing them of their rights — under the recently decided U.S. Supreme Court Janus case — to opt out of their unions. But union leaders say the organization is a front group for anti-union billionaires.

New Choice NY describes itself as an "independent, nonpartisan statewide effort" to give the state’s public employees "impartial and factual information" about their constitutional rights after the court ruled that public workers who don’t want to belong to unions no longer will see union-related fees deducted from their paychecks.

The group’s spokesman, Bob Bellafiore, said they are not anti-union.

"No, not at all," he said. "We are fully aware that public employee unions and unions across the board have done great things for many workers. But we know that they don’t work for all."

New Choice NY offers on its website a form letter that public union members can use to inform their employers that they no longer want to be in the union or pay the related dues.

Under New York law, workers who drop out are still represented by the union in contract negotiations and receive the same pay and benefits as a union member. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature — in anticipation of the Janus decision — enacted a new measure that allows unions to deny nonunion members other perks, such as free legal representation if they are accused of misconduct on the job.

The group, using publicly available information, has begun emailing state workers, teachers, police and other public union employees offering them help if they want to leave the union. Bellafiore said they’ve already received responses.

"We’ve received a tremendous amount of emails," said Bellafiore.

He said many are seeking more information: "People will reply to us from their personal email address, saying, ‘I want to know more information, I have this issue, how can you help me with this.’ "

But the group has also received blowback. New York State United Teachers Union President Andy Pallotta is suspicious of its motives.

"Does anybody think it would be a good thing or a productive thing to do, to tell people, ‘You don’t need a voice, you don’t need better benefits, a secure retirement?’ " Pallotta asked. "It’s really just trying to steal people away from their union."

Pallotta said many of his union members have been angry over the email notices and some organized a "Boycott Bob" movement, which has deluged Bellafiore’s site with 3,000 emails.

"It’s just a way of our members saying, ‘Delete, buh bye, I don’t need you, Bob,’ " Pallotta said. "He’s being used by these folks."

Bellafiore said the tactic is childish.

"Spamming my website is middle school," Bellafiore said. "The next thing you know, they’re going to put masking tape on my locker."

Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue said, in a statement, that it’s an "outrage" that his members have been contacted by what he said is a front group for "corporate CEOs and the wealthy" who are out to bust unions.

New Choice NY’s parent group is Americans for Fair Treatment. NYSUT and CSEA say it is affiliated with anti-union forces, including the Koch brothers and the family of federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. They provided information on links between the group and the two families that they say back up their claims.

Bellafiore won’t say who the group’s donors are, and he said court decisions have ruled that he doesn’t have to.

"The funders for this effort are confidential," Bellafiore said.

He cited a 1956 case where the Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP did not have to disclose its donors because doing so might put them in danger. He compares his group to other organizations like Planned Parenthood that traditionally don’t publicly reveal their donors.

Bellafiore said his group should be judged on its actions, not its donor list. And he said if unions in New York are as solid as they claim to be, then they have nothing to fear from his efforts.

Unions say the group is not having much of an effect on their members, including NYSUT’s nearly half-million active members, Pallotta said.

"We’ve had nine people drop the union," Pallotta said. "And within that same time period, we’ve had 9,000 new recommit cards signed by our members."

But he said they are not taking anything for granted. Pallotta said his union is spending the summer knocking on doors of union members, asking for their feedback on what they like and don’t like about the union.