The rights of Washington state home-care workers to opt out of union membership has become a contentious issue between an Olympia-based think tank and the Service Employees International Union, which recently negotiated a contract that raises the average hourly pay for care workers to at least $14 by 2017.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in an Illinois case, which dealt with personal assistants who provide help with household chores, has opened the door to weakening the clout of unions that represent Washington workers who are considered state employees only for the purposes of collective bargaining. Letting workers easily opt out of union membership or fees could erode the unions’ financial base and political clout.
In Washington state, the court ruling appears to apply to the more than 40,000 home care workers in SEIU 775; 8,000 child-care operators represented by SEIU 925; roughly 1,000 medical-language interpreters represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees; and hundreds of adult family home providers represented by the Residential Care Council of Family Homes. In each case, care providers are paid by the state, and the unions negotiate with the state for wage rates or reimbursement rates.
The Freedom Foundation, a right-of-center think tank that has a history of fighting labor unions, has been in court with two SEIU locals that sued to block the release of their members’ names and contact information to the foundation. The think tank wants to directly inform those individual workers they have a right to opt out – and avoid payment of any fees.
So far, the foundation is winning in court, but its impact on unions is harder to judge. A federal lawsuit also is pending in Tacoma challenging the right of the state Department of Social and Health Services to automatically deduct SEIU 775 dues or fees from paychecks of care workers.
“To date there has been a very very small percentage of members who have opted out,” SEIU 775 spokesman Jackson Holtz said on Friday. “What we see more than anything is that our members are committed to serving the most vulnerable people of our state – older adults and people with disabilities.”
About 75 of the union’s more than 40,000 represented care givers opted out in 2013, well before the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Harris v. Quinn case, according to documents the union files yearly at the U.S. Department of Labor.
But the number of SEIU’s defectors could grow, if TFF – which won a court ruling recently in Thurston County Superior Court over release of contact information for SEIU 775’s members – is able to make direct appeals to union workers. The union, which lost its arguments for an injunction, is appealing.
OPT IN OR OPT OUT?
Freedom Foundation’s labor policy analyst Maxford Nelsen questions whether the groups have benefited from collective bargaining.
“I think a good argument can be made that collective bargaining is not appropriate for these groups,’’ Nelsen added, noting there is not a traditional workplace for home-care workers, who go into the homes of Medicaid clients. He said “it appears it has been set up simply as a cash machine for SEIU” to automatically collect dues from large numbers of workers.
But Holtz said the unionizing of the low-paid workers has raised many caregivers out of poverty since voters approved Initiative 775 in 2001, which gave workers who had been making at or barely above the minimum wage the right to collectively bargain with the state.
Asked about the threat posed by the Freedom Foundation, Holtz said the union is continuing to educate its members that their mission is to lift care workers’ pay and to ensure in-home care – such as help with bathing, cooking, taking medications or cleaning, doing laundry and shopping – is available for the elderly and disabled who qualify for Medicaid services.
Holtz said SEIU 775 also plans to bring some of its members to the state Capitol in January to make the case to lawmakers that they should put the SEIU 775 labor contract into the state budget for 2015-17. Gov. Jay Inslee plans to include two-dozen contracts raising compensation by more than $583 million in the two-year budget proposal he is scheduled to unveil Thursday in Olympia.
In the case of child-care providers, the state Department of Early Learning released some workers’ names and contact information to the foundation. The foundation has tried to notify some individual providers of their rights, and Nelsen said Friday that the think tank is already getting “hundreds” of inquiries.
He does not yet know how many will translate into decisions by the unionized workers to quit paying dues or fees.
Marie Keller, an 18-year veteran child-care provider and family child-care chapter president for SEIU 925, said the union isn’t seeing many defections yet.
“We are hearing a little bit of frustration from members – mostly that they are concerned that somebody is contacting them aggressively,” Keller said. “(P)roviders know, especially anyone licensed for very long in this system, that … being able to advocate together has been so valuable for children and our services.’’
MEASURING THE GAINS
Keller said child-care providers have gained a roughly 20 percent increase in reimbursements from the state for subsidized care since winning collective bargaining rights in 2006. Providers also have secured additional training, which she said is leading to better quality of care. She said a quality-rating system for child care now links improvements in quality to higher reimbursements or subsidies for providers.
As the unions and the foundation battle directly for the attention of workers, the same issues are likely to rear up in the Legislature in January.
Keller of SEIU 925 said there is interest in protecting providers’ financial and personal information – such as the location of private care facilities – from disclosure to third parties like the Freedom Foundation.
Other fights may develop over how care workers are categorized – as state employees or as private contractors. Nelsen of the foundation said he would like to see state law clarified so that unions have to secure an affirmative opt-in before collecting dues or fees.
Some lawmakers have also raised questions about the cost of the two-dozen labor contracts, which include $116.8 million for the home care pay raises and the start of a retirement account contribution. Republican Sen. John Braun of Centralia has said there is inconsistent language in contracts language describing the right of workers to opt out of paying representation fees or being in the union.
Braun has asked Attorney General Bob Ferguson to clarify what how the Supreme Court ruling affects the rights of the workers. But Ferguson’s office has declined to discuss it until the case known as Centeno v. Quigley – brought by a few care workers against the DSHS secretary – goes to trial next year in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.