Court should preserve union ‘fair share’

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, left, talks to reporters as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee looks on during the Associated Press' annual Legislative Preview event in early January.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, left, talks to reporters as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee looks on during the Associated Press' annual Legislative Preview event in early January. AP

In what could be one of the most significant workers’ rights cases of our lifetime, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to overturn a time-tested standard that protects public employees’ right to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

In 1977, the high court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that while public employees represented by a union could opt out of union membership, they must pay a “fair share” of the cost of negotiation because the union’s work benefitted those employees.

Janus v. AFSCME, which was before the court last week, is a concerted effort by anti-union interests to undo the “fair share” standard and undermine the ability of public sector unions to collectively bargain.

In the decades before Abood, public sector employees around the nation launched enormously disruptive strikes.

Transit workers, postal workers, teachers, sanitation workers, law enforcement and others locked arms and demanded they be allowed the same right to collectively bargain as workers in the private sector. Many states granted this right to workers.

That right was challenged by those who argued that their First Amendment right to free speech was violated because their union dues supported political action they didn’t agree with.

In the landmark Abood case, the court ruled that a represented worker could opt out of paying dues but states could adopt policies allowing public sector unions to charge a representation fee – or “fair share fee” – that covers just the costs related to bargaining, negotiation and representation.

Washington, along with 22 other states and the District of Columbia, have such policies.

Janus is the newest attempt to undermine public sector unions. The plaintiffs raise essentially the same arguments as in Abood. The court settled these issues 40 years ago.

If Janus succeeds, it will be a win for powerful special interests and another setback for the struggling American middle class.

Unions will still be obligated to represent all employees in the work unit, but those people will no longer be obligated to pay their fair share for these benefits, which threatens the financial viability of unions.

Overturning Abood threatens the right of public employees to collectively bargain because it guts the financial mechanism to do so.

We want to be clear that we believe strong unions – in both the public and private sectors – provide a strong public benefit. All of us benefit from the dramatic reforms to working conditions that unions fought for and won.

A century ago, young children frequently worked in factories or on farms instead of attending school. Workers could be forced to work extremely long hours without overtime pay, and be fired if they refused. Exposure to toxic chemicals, fire hazards and unsafe machinery regularly maimed or killed workers.

Our modern-day laws guaranteeing minimum wages, safety standards and reasonable work hours are a result of union-driven reforms. And unions set standards for entire industries and occupations, which helps boost wages for non-union workers.

That’s why Washington is proud to be among those fighting for the right of state employees to use their power in numbers to improve their lives.

We are among a coalition of 20 states that recently filed a court brief arguing that our states benefit when we have strong unions and workers are not striking. We don’t want to go backward 40 years to a time when public employees took to the streets because they didn’t have any other way to be heard.

Before the Abood case, many states faced paralyzing public-sector strikes. The relative rarity of these events today is evidence that the standard is working. We’re all better served with public employees at the bargaining table, not the picket line.

Notably, the Abood decision came down without a single dissent. The current court should affirm a precedent that has survived 40 years.

Regardless of any Supreme Court decision, we stand in solidarity with worker organizations and their fight to keep good jobs in our communities.

Jay Inslee is Washington’s second-term governor and Bob Ferguson is Washington’s second-term attorney general. Both are Democrats.