Nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that could undercut financial support for public-sector unions, a bill is advancing through the state Legislature that critics say undermines the ruling.
In June of last year, the court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers cannot be compelled to financially support unions, including fees paid by nonmembers for collective bargaining. The ruling undid more than 40 years of precedent, effectively creating a national “right-to-work” environment for public-sector employees.
The court ruling has created concerns that public-sector unions, a large constituency of the Democratic Party, would be undermined. How the ruling plays out is being closely watched by both sides in Washington, where about half of the 138,400 state employees are represented by bargaining units.
House Bill 1575 would modify how public-sector employees can join and leave unions, shield unions from liability from collecting past fees and would make it easier to organize some work environments.
Rep. Monica Stonier, a Vancouver Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said that the legislation will align state law with the Janus ruling. Stonier, a teachers union member, said that the bill will help ensure that public-sector employees are aware of their union’s benefits before opting out.
“We want people to know what they are giving up,” she said.
But critics have argued that the bill is unfair and seeks to sidestep the court ruling by making it easier for public-sector employees to join a union but more difficult to opt out.
“The cards are stacked, a little bit, in favor of joining (a union) instead of discontinuing,” said Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, who called it “lopsided.”
In anticipation of the Janus ruling, Washington lawmakers passed a bill, also sponsored by Stonier, last year that required government employers to deduct union dues (or fees for nonmembers) from workers’ pay even without their authorization. The Janus ruling ended up striking down the mandatory collection of dues and requires public employees to authorize the payments.
Under the new bill, employees have to give their consent for the deduction of dues, which can be done in writing, telephone or electronic communications. The bill would require a public employee wanting to opt out of paying deductions to submit the request in writing to the union. After the employer is notified by the union that the employee has revoked their authorization, the deductions will end.
Republican legislators, and others, have criticized the bill for creating a situation where employees would have only one way to end deductions but multiple ways to join unions.
“It seems to me that if you have five different ways you can join a union, there ought to be five different ways you can get out of a union,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, at a bill hearing before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
At the same hearing, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said that it should be as easy for workers to opt out of a union as it is to opt in.
“As a member of a union, I know that many of our workers, our teachers, don’t know what’s in the union membership they are giving up and we want to make sure they understand that,” responded Stonier. She said that unions might provide benefits that not all members know about, such as smoking cessation programs or financial planning.
During the hearing, representatives from the Washington Education Association, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees and SEIU Local 925 spoke in favor of the bill. They said it helps bring state law in line with the ruling and current practices.
Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said that Stonier’s explanation “didn’t quite cut the mustard there.” Erin Haick, political director for Local 925, responded that because her union has members across the state who speak different languages, it made sense for them to opt out through their union. Others on the panel said that the bill would provide a consistent and clear way of leaving the union and that opt-out requests from members will be accepted.
The bill has gained momentum during the session. It passed out of the House last month on a 57-41 party-line vote. Clark County Republican Reps. Vicki Kraft, Paul Harris, Brandon Vick and Hoff all voted against it. Stonier was joined by Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, in voting for it. It is currently in the Senate Rules Committee after passing out of the Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce on a party-line vote.
“There are a lot of different ways this bill is objectionable,” said Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that has mounted an aggressive outreach effort to government employees notifying them of their ability to opt out of unions.
Nelsen said that all a union needs to do is get an employee to say “yes” over the phone to lock them into dues obligations, a practice he called “telemarketing on steroids.”
He said that unions already have an incredible amount of access to employees to explain benefits. He said that under the bill unions may limit the time frame for when a member can cancel deductions to a narrow annual window.
Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said that the bill might make it a little easier to join a union but added that anyone can leave at any point.
“Regardless of the methods of joining, anyone can drop,” he said.
Unions can currently organize on behalf of employees in some circumstances by filing a petition along with cards indicating interest from at least 70 percent of employees in the proposed bargaining unit. The bill would lower that threshold for some employees to 50 percent. Nelsen also criticized card-checks as coercive and said it’s fairer for employees to decide if they want to unionize using a secret ballot.
But Devereux said that card-checks have been in practice for more than a decade. During the Senate hearing, Pat Thompson, lobbyist for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said that most jurisdictions already honor authorization cards and the bill will provide consistency.
The bill also shields unions from liability from collecting dues and fees prior to the ruling. Nelsen said that this provision keeps unions from accountability and Kraft unsuccessfully sponsored an amendment to remove this provision. Devereux dismissed the arguments that the ruling should apply retroactively and pointed to court decisions supporting his position.