Politics & Government

Supreme Court decision on public unions has big implications in Washington state

Unions fighting against anti-labor pushback

Labor groups in Washington are gearing up for an unfavorable ruling this summer from the Supreme Court of the United States in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees case.
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Labor groups in Washington are gearing up for an unfavorable ruling this summer from the Supreme Court of the United States in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees case.

Washington's public unions took a double hit Wednesday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they can't force government workers to pay the cost of negotiating over salaries and other workplace benefits and appeared to invalidate a new state law that automatically enrolls employees.

The 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME was lambasted by unions representing city, county and state employees, who said it would hurt workers and degrade quality jobs. The order could cost public-sector unions in Washington millions of dollars and thousands of members.

Anti-labor groups, many Republicans and some public employees hailed the ruling, which reverses a precedent set in 1977, as a victory for free speech protections.

"I think this is the best possible outcome for public employees and for civil rights that we could have hoped for," said Maxford Nelsen, the director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to shrinking the size and influence of public unions.

In states like Washington without "right-to-work" laws, nonmembers in a union-represented workplace can be required to pay fees that bankroll collective bargaining. In the pro-labor world, they're often described as "fair share" fees or "agency fees" meant to ensure no one gets a benefit from unions without pitching in.

"I still think it’s incredibly fair to require individuals to pay for the services we provide," said Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Previous court rulings have barred unions from charging nonmembers for the cost of their explicit political work.

In his written opinion, Justice Samuel Alito added to those regulations, saying fear of so-called "free riders" was not enough to compel workers who aren't in the union to "subsidize" the cost of collective bargaining for an organization they disagree with.

The court also took the case one step farther, saying public-sector unions couldn't automatically enroll employees and deduct dues without first having their consent. Washington state passed a law earlier this year over Republican objections to make membership "default," as it was described by the sponsor of House Bill 2751, state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver.

Workers would have to opt out to leave the union under that law. Devereux said the bill was "nice and helpful," but it now is illegal.

"By agreeing to pay, nonmembers are waiving their First Amendment rights, and such a waiver cannot be presumed," Alito wrote.

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

Labor unions across the country have worried the Janus decision would hurt the ability of unions to organize and keep a grip on collective-bargaining power with fewer members and smaller budgets.

At WFSE, the largest union that bargains directly with state government, there are currently more than 5,000 nonmembers paying agency fees and 36,000 full-fledged members. Losing those fee payers alone could cost the union millions of its $19 million annual budget.

Still, the number of agency fee payers has dropped in recent years. Devereux said in an interview Wednesday that Janus won't be a knockout punch by any means.

"We’ve anticipated it for a number of years. We’ve been really demonstrating I think value and relevance to our members," he said. "We don’t think it’s going to have a major impact."

WFSE and other unions have been doing member outreach and taking other strategies to keep their ranks strong. Devereux said he himself was recently knocking on doors of people represented by the union as part of the campaign.

Unions in Washington also have a governor and Legislature largely friendly to them. Lawmakers passed several laws last year designed to aid unions in enrolling and keeping members, and state unions have won some big raises in recent collective bargaining.

Democrats currently control the state House and Senate.

The 2019 session, which begins in January, is likely to have more battles over union-related legislation.

Stonier, the Vancouver Democrat, said there are potential tweaks to her legislation that could make it legal, and that she is currently analyzing the Janus decision to see if there are other bills she could support that would bolster unions.

She said lawmakers should continue their push to shield the birthdates of public employees from public disclosure laws, which has drawn opposition from open government and media groups. The Freedom Foundation aims to use those birthdates to reach public employees and tell them about how they can leave unions.

Unions also contend releasing the birthdates is a privacy risk for state workers.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican, vowed instead to roll back labor influence in Washington state, saying public employees "lost ground this year to the unions."

"This coming year we may see some legislative proposals to address those setbacks and protect public-sector union members in ways that their counterparts in the private sector already enjoy," he said in a prepared statement.

State workers rallied in Tacoma and elsewhere around Washington on Wednesday to voice opposition to the ruling, and support for unions.

Mike Yestramski, a psychiatric social worker at Western State Hospital and a shop steward for WFSE, said his union has been "instrumental" in winning workplace safety measures, improved training and pay increases at the Lakewood facility that have increased retention of skilled workers. In an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian, he said those may not have been possible without strong collective bargaining.

"I think it comes back to really having one-on-one conversations with your coworkers and making sure people know why it’s important to have a union,” Yestramski said, explaining how unions need to fight to retain members.

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, in a prepared statement Wednesday joined the chorus of labor groups blasting the Janus decision. She called it "part of a national campaign to take away the freedom of working people to join together in strong unions."

While the plaintiff in the Illinois case was Mark Janus, a state worker, the case was originally brought by the state's governor Bruce Rauner, a fierce opponent of unions. Groups backing right to work laws and other conservative causes also filed many briefs supporting Janus in the case.

Nelsen, of the Freedom Foundation, hit back saying the case was "absolutely a win for the free speech rights of public employees."

"If they want to join and financially support a union, they could today just as easily as they could yesterday," he said. "It just means the unions can no-longer co-opt the voices of those that don’t wish to support them."

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826; @walkerorenstein