Politics & Government

Washington's public unions fight to retain influence in face of adverse court ruling

When Pam Kruse took over the Franklin Pierce Education Association, there were 56 school staffers who weren’t union members. Now there are 10.

That’s a signature accomplishment for Kruse, an energetic and charismatic leader who assumed the reins of the 535-member organization in 2011.

Yet, on a gray March night in Puyallup, Kruse and roughly 20 other teachers and school staff convened over pizza to learn strategies for protecting against an impending legal earthquake that might cost Washington's public-sector unions millions of dollars and thousands of members: Janus.

That would be Janus v. AFSCME, an Illinois case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that has sweeping implications for unions nationwide that represent teachers and city, county and state employees of all stripes.

Washington’s public unions appear better positioned than many to absorb and even mitigate the likely effects of the landmark court case. But they’re still taking efforts internally and through the Legislature to build up defenses.

"For so long we just assumed everyone signed their membership form and it was great," Kruse said. She called Janus a "wake-up call."

Pam Kruse, president of the Franklin Pierce Education Association, works on a mailing with members of her bargaining team, April 16, 2018. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

In the case, many predict the court, which leans conservative, will strike a blow to public-sector union power by stopping the practice of charging so-called “fair share” fees to people who don’t belong to the union.

In states without “right-to-work” laws, nonmembers in a union-represented workplace can be required to pay fees that bankroll the cost of collective bargaining with the government.

An end to fair-share fees, or agency fees, would make the public sector in Washington and the rest of the nation effectively right to work. That means no public employee could be required to pay for any part of a union's operation.

Right-to-work systems are now in place in 28 states. Extending those rules would be a welcome outcome for some.

Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the conservative nonprofit Freedom Foundation in Olympia, said the organization has no issue with public employees "voluntarily" joining a union and paying dues.

"We think, though, that the choice should be completely voluntary and transparently presented to that employee," Nelsen said.

Pro-labor groups say nonmembers should pay for bargaining costs because they benefit even if they're not in the union. Without money from agency fees, unions could lose collective-bargaining strength, staff and leverage as they try and push for contracts that favor their workers.

The case also could cut into the influential lobbying and election organizing of labor groups. Currently nonmembers don’t have to pay for political dues, but full-fledged members do.

A study released Wednesday by Robert Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois, and the left-leaning Illinois Economic Policy Institute shows just how much Janus could change unions.

The research predicts a national right-to-work ruling would cut union membership in state and local government around the country by 8.2 percent — a loss of 726,000 union members over time. Public school teacher unions could see membership drop 4.8 percent, according to the study.

"The ultimate effect is going to be the institution itself is going to be weakened," Bruno said of public unions. "That will make it harder for it to grow. That will disincentivize people from wanting to be part of it."

Potential effects of Janus

Anti-union groups have long opposed mandatory agency fees, saying they violate free speech protections and the right to free association. Despite those objections, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled them legal in a 1977 case known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

Opinions on the court appear to have changed since then.

In the 2014 case Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court ruled against “fair share” agency fees for a segment of home health care workers that were not full state employees.

Then in 2016, a case nearly identical to Janus related to full-fledged public employees made it to the Supreme Court. Before the court ruled on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, however, Justice Antonin Scalia died.

The case deadlocked 4-4.

With Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, a ruling on Janus is expected by the end of the current Supreme Court session in July.

The main plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, an Illinois social worker who is not a member of his local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees even though the union negotiates his contract with the government.

Greg Devereux is the executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, a state branch of AFSCME. As the head of the largest labor group that bargains directly with state government, Devereux has a lot on the line.

Executive director Greg Devereux at the Washington Federation of State Employees headquarters in Olympia on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

WFSE represents roughly 43,000 people and has nearly 36,000 full-fledged members. About 5,500 people are nonmembers who pay only agency fees, according to Tim Welch, the union’s spokesman.

The study from Illinois and WFSE enrollment may provide a hint at how Janus would affect the union.

Nonmembers currently pay 1.17 percent of their gross monthly salary to WFSE with a maximum of $63.42 a month. By contrast, union members pay 1.5 percent of their gross monthly salary, capped at $81.18 per month.

Based on those dues, WFSE could lose millions a year if current nonmembers stop paying agency fees and union enrollment drops. Welch said the union's annual budget is roughly $19 million.

The hit also would be in the millions for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest public-sector union, although it is more complex to estimate. The WEA has about 95,000 members statewide and represents a swath of teachers and staff in K-12 schools and some colleges and universities. Under the WEA umbrella, local branches of the union serving K-12 teachers bargain directly with school districts.

Rich Wood, the union’s spokesman, declined to give specific data for nonmembers represented by the WEA. But he said membership is more than 95 percent.

The typical K-12 staff member in the WEA pays between $1,000 and $1,100 a year, Wood said. A fee payer who accesses a refund from the union for political costs gets 25 percent of that money back, Wood said.

Still, most aren't spelling doom for Washington's unions. A decline in membership doesn’t appear to be an “existential threat” to WFSE, the WEA or most public-sector unions in the state, said Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation.

WFSE Chart 3.JPG
Source: Washington Federation of State Employees

Devereux also said Janus won’t be an unmanageable blow. He compared the union’s numbers now to the roughly 20,000 they had in 1994 when he became executive director.

“Yes we could lose fee payers, we could lose some percentage of members,” Devereux said. “But we’re not going to go back down” to those levels.

WFSE even appears to be gaining steam in the face of the national right-to-work movement.

The percentage of agency fee payers in workplaces represented by the union has steadily dropped for years, according to data released to The News Tribune and The Olympian by WFSE.

In 2014, 17 percent of the people represented by WFSE were agency fee-paying nonmembers. In February of 2018, it was just under 13 percent.

Legal changes

Labor groups still have made an urgent push to bolster their ranks through the Legislature.

With Democratic control in the House and Senate this year for the first time since 2012, lawmakers largely have helped them.

Two bills in particular were prized wins for unions in the fight against Janus: Senate Bill 6229, which requires new public employees to meet with union representatives during orientation for at least 30 minutes; and House Bill 2751, which authorized involuntary deduction of union dues from new state workers unless they provide written notice that they wish to be nonmembers or religious objectors.

In debate over SB 6229, Democrats called the orientation meetings necessary to educate workers about the benefits of a union and their rights. Many in the GOP derided them as mandatory meetings where unions could pressure new employees to join against their will.

The bill is similar to a law passed in California last year. In Washington, the legislation was approved mostly along party lines in February, although it got a sprinkle of GOP support.

"This could go a long way to reduce people who would otherwise defect," Bruno said.

A billboard promoting unions is visible along southbound I-5 near Fife, Wash., on Monday, April 9, 2018. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

HB 2751 faced a tougher road in the Legislature before passing in February with only one GOP vote.

Rep. Monica Stonier, a Vancouver Democrat who sponsored the bill, had several reasons she believes "default" membership is better.

For one, she said state workers might decide whether to join a union when they’re first hired, but many of them don’t come to understand the benefits of a union — such as representation in situations where there’s been a complaint or discipline — until they’re months or even years on the job. Then, when they need that benefit, they're not a member, she said.

She added that some hard-to-reach state workers in rural areas could get information about the union more easily if they're enrolled immediately and can always opt out if they don't like what they learn.

Stonier is a WEA member and union representative who works for Evergreen Public Schools.

Most Republicans see her bill differently.

In a House floor debate, Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, painted HB 2751 as forced payment to unions that violates his fundamental belief in consent for payment.

“I may give you some of my paycheck,” Manweller said on the floor. “But is it too much to ask that you ask?”

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said Democrats are broadly trying force union membership ahead of Janus because labor organizations — which donate heavily to Democrats — don't offer enough benefit to convince people to voluntarily join.

“The problem that they’re trying to solve is Janus and the Supreme Court because they know it’s a threat to their very existence because they don’t provide value to their members,” he said in an interview.

Baumgartner, a frequent union critic, held hearings on right-to-work legislation when he chaired the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee. The Republican said he killed bills like Stonier’s in the past, but Democrats won control of the Senate in 2017.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, defended the bills in an interview last week. Stonier's bill means people start out pulling their weight for unions, even if they can opt out later, Inslee said.

He added he believes in agency fees.

“It just goes back to the fundamental concept of: ‘People, if you’re going to receive a benefit, why should you expect somebody else to have to pay for it?’ ” he said.

Selling the union

At Kruse’s meeting in Puyallup, a WEA organizer ran staff through role-playing exercises to prepare them for convincing skeptical employees to join the union after Janus.

In one scenario, a fictional woman named Kamala is concerned about paying union dues while saddled with student debt.

Asked what she would tell a new employee concerned about paying union dues, Kruse was succinct: “Honestly, I’m going to say this is the best investment of your lifetime.”

“You are investing in solidarity, in your members, in your union,” she said. “You’re investing in the right to negotiate a fair pay. You are investing in smaller class size. Because without the union, you’re not going to get those.”

WEA Meeting
Union members in the Franklin Pierce Education Association meet at the group’s headquarters in Puyallup in March to prepare for the pending Janus v. AFSCME case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Walker Orenstein The News Tribune

One alarm pro-labor groups have sounded with Janus is that it will hurt those wages and benefits in the long run. The Illinois study predicted wages for state and local government employees would drop 3.6 percent on average and salaries of K-12 teachers would decrease by 5.4 percent.

Conservatives often argue job growth is higher in right-to-work states and that such laws can increase wages — claims with a mix of support and opposition from economists and researchers over the years.

One thing is certain: in the last few years, unions have racked up some wins for their members at the state Capitol. The WEA was a large part of the McCleary education lawsuit, which led to billions in new state investments in K-12 schools.

Teachers also got an increase in their minimum salary and a mandatory 10-percent salary raise after five years on the job, among other new benefits in 2017.

On a wider scale, the collective bargaining contracts approved by Inslee and the Legislature in 2017 gave most of the state’s workers a 6-percent cost-of-living raise through 2019 and targeted higher raises for some.

Still, Devereux said, focusing on bargaining and legal changes in state government isn’t enough to convince members to stay. He pointed to the struggle of unions in Wisconsin after the state became “right to work.”

That state passed anti-union legislation in 2011 that greatly restricted collective bargaining and cut benefits for state workers, but some of the blame for the decline of organized labor falls on union leaders, he said.

“In Wisconsin, in my opinion, our union and other unions were not prepared in any way,” Devereux said. “They negotiated contracts for years, they did not talk to their members and it has been a total calamity in Wisconsin.”

Devereux said unions in Washington are trying not to repeat those mistakes. He said the union has made a concerted effort to be “present in the workplace” since the 2016 Friedrichs case and help address problems for workers that don’t rise to the level of an official grievance.

WFSE is doing far more outreach with current fee payers and convince them join — a strategy Devereux said has proved successful already. The union also launched new metrics and data analysis to better organize.

New billboards around the state and bus advertisements in the South Sound have been part of their promotion strategy.

For Kruse, training, organizing and “being more intentional” about rallying union support is the key to softening the loss of agency fees and, potentially, more members.

She said they have also been preparing for years.

“We are ready to go the next step,” Kruse said of Franklin Pierce’s union. “We are together as one.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826; @walkerorenstein