When Monica Stonier first started working full time as a teacher in 2001, she was more focused on learning her students’ names than about her union, the Washington Education Association. But now Stonier, who has since been elected as a Democratic state representative for Vancouver, gives more thought to the future of organized labor.
Stonier said that somehow the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank, found her home address. Like thousands of other public employees, she receives a letter each year reminding her that she can limit her financial support for her union.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a series of cases that right-to-work advocates hope will further the decline of organized labor (particularly among public-sector employees).
The Freedom Foundation has actively sought to reduce the power of public-sector unions using these rulings. Last legislative session, Stonier, and other like-minded lawmakers, passed legislation intended to minimize the impact of court rulings unfriendly to unions. This legislation could soon be put to the test.
In June, the court is expected to rule on Janus v. AFSCME. The case is centered on an Illinois state employee who is arguing that being forced to pay fees to a union for representation violates his civil rights. A ruling in favor of Janus would overturn a decades-old precedent and could significantly peel back support for politically influential public-sector unions.
“Janus is the newest attempt to undermine and destroy public-sector unions,” said Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, in a press release. “If Janus succeeds, it will be a win for powerful special interests and another setback for the struggling American middle class.”
Democrats could have reason to worry about the outcome of Janus. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican governor signed sweeping legislation that later undercut the finances and political influence of that state’s public-sector unions. Union membership plummeted and the once-dominant Democratic Party saw its influence wane.
Earlier this year, a paper published by scholars from Columbia University, Boston University and the Brookings Institution found that states that passed right-to-work legislation saw the Democratic share of the presidential vote drop by 3.5 percentage points. The study found similar effects down ballot.
But if the court rules for Janus, it won’t necessarily mean that Washington’s public-sector unions will follow Wisconsin’s. During the last legislative session, the Democratic-led Legislature passed bills intended to shore up support for unions. But even with a sympathetic Legislature, union advocates say that organized labor will have to prove its worth to its members if the court rules for Janus.
“I think we have enough history in this country and enough support, particularly in this state, to show that our unions have provided a higher standard of living and safer work environment for those represented by unions,” said Stonier.
Maxford Nelsen, labor policy director for the Freedom Foundation, said that while Supreme Court rulings tend to be thought of as the final word, they often don’t get into details or practical reality. He said that how a ruling for Janus plays out hinges on how unions respond.
“The interesting thing is, the fact that we even have to ask that question highlights some of the injustice of the current system,” he said.
Reframing the debate
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court set a precedent with Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. In the case, the court ruled that public-sector unions can’t force employees to join a union or contribute to its political activity. However, the court upheld that unions could require employees to pay fees to cover collective-bargaining costs.
The ruling concluded that compelling the payments wouldn’t violate employees’ free speech rights. The fees would also address “free riders,” employees who benefit from protections and higher wages secured by the union but won’t pay for them.
Recent court rulings have chipped away at this precedent. In the 2014 case Harris v. Quinn, the court found that home health care workers, assistants to needy people paid with public funds but hired by their patients, were not fully public employees and couldn’t be compelled to pay fees to a union.
Since then, President Donald Trump has appointed Neil Gorsuch, a conservative jurist, to the Supreme Court. Conservatives are optimistic that the court’s new composition will issue a ruling in the Janus case that will decimate public-sector unions.
The case concerns Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services whose cause is backed by multiple conservative organizations. Janus has argued that collective bargaining by public-sector unions is essentially political because it influences the allocation of state resources. He’s argued that being compelled to pay fees to these unions violates his First Amendment rights and is asking the court to overturn the Abood decision.
Nelsen said that the Janus case is a needed re-examination of the role of public-sector unions. He said public employees may disagree with the activities of their unions but are still forced to contribute.
“The reason this is a civil rights issue is because unions are co-opting the voices of people who disagree with them to boost their own political influence,” he said.
But Stonier said if the union secures benefits for all of the workers it represents, then all of its workers should contribute. She said that unions have been a vehicle for better pay and working conditions, especially for minorities. She framed preserving the viability of unions as a civil rights issues.