A pending U.S. Supreme Court decision threatens the privileged status of unions representing public employees in Washington, leaving state lawmakers rushing to protect this politically influential special interest group.
In 22 states including Washington, union-backed laws allow public employees to be fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees.
While people often think of unions and business as opposites, unions are in the business of offering workplace representation services to employees.
When unions can force employees to pay for such services, they tend to overcharge and underperform, just like any monopoly would.
In government, unions regularly spend lavishly on political activity and lobbying. Consequently, elected officials and unions collaborate to keep workers paying dues so that unions can keep contributing to politicians’ campaigns.
SEIU 775, a major Washington union, estimates 43 percent of the dues it collects fund politics and other activity unrelated to representing members.
A Freedom Foundation analysis of campaign finance records indicates Gov. Jay Inslee benefitted from $2.4 million in union election spending between his two campaigns, about three quarters of which came from members’ dues.
This creates a major civil rights problem for public employees, who are compelled to support, through their union dues, causes and activities they may intensely oppose.
While the U.S. Supreme Court, in a poorly reasoned 1977 opinion, upheld laws requiring public employees to financially support a union, it heard arguments last week in case called Janus v. AFSCME directly challenging this precedent.
Illinois plaintiff Mark Janus believes having to financially support a union he disagrees with violates his First Amendment free-speech rights.
If the court agrees, millions of public employees in states including Washington will finally be able to choose for themselves whether to financially support a union, at least in theory.
Government unions are working feverishly to preemptively blunt Janus’ impact. Many Washington unions have launched campaigns to get employees to sign new membership forms that lock them into paying dues for at least a year.
It includes fine print making it next to impossible to cancel the deductions from their paychecks.
Additionally, union executives are calling in favors from the many state lawmakers they helped elect.
Senate Bill 6229, introduced by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), a union fire fighter, allows union organizers to pressure newly hired public employees to sign away their constitutional rights in captive audience meetings.
Even if a public employee refuses to sign up for union membership, House Bill 2751 requires the employer to automatically seize full union dues from the employee’s pay anyway, unless the employee demands in writing the deductions stop.
HB2751 was introduced by Rep. Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver), a teacher’s union activist.
A business that tried anything similar wouldn’t last long. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently sued a company for “(luring) customers into signing up” and then “(making) it very difficult to cancel their subscriptions.”
“It is maddening for consumers to receive products they don’t want but are charged for,” Ferguson stated. “That’s a deceptive way to run a business…”
It’s also a deceptive way to run a union, but you won’t hear that from Ferguson, who received substantial campaign support from government unions.
Unfortunately, even if the Supreme Court sides with workers in Janus, as it should, much work will remain to make employees’ rights a practical reality.
Maxford Nelsen is director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based nonprofit.