For government workers in Washington, the freedom to choose not to be a dues-paying member of a public-employee union is finally at hand.
Labor unions have been a vital force in society since the Industrial Revolution, and we trust most public-sector workers in our state will see the value of continuing to pay for representation.
But those who don’t want to sign the dotted line for political, religious or other personal reasons shouldn’t be coerced into it. Today, they have cause to celebrate after a very long wait.
First came a blockbuster decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 2018. Reversing four decades of precedent, the Janus ruling said public-sector workers no longer could be compelled to pay union “fair share” fees.
Then Washington lawmakers this year made changes to state law to conform with the new reality.
Nobody in Olympia was thrilled about it — neither the labor-backed, Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor who hated the Janus decision outright, nor the minority Republicans who felt the changes didn’t go far enough to curb union power.
Now the last pieces are falling into place, as public-employee contracts in Tacoma and elsewhere are being written for the post-Janus world.
On Tuesday, the Tacoma City Council was set to approve five labor agreements with unions representing hundreds of employees, plus amend the current three-year contract that covers police officers. One provision requires compliance with new terms of the state Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act.
In a nutshell, it means local bargaining units must attest that an employee has given informed consent for membership; only then will the city make paycheck deductions to cover union initiation fees, monthly dues and assessments.
This seems fairly straightforward, and it’s a defensible way to safeguard the First Amendment rights of public employees. If they decline union membership, it’s not because of a distaste for collective bargaining; they’ll be rejecting their union’s overreach into public policy issues.
No Tacoma cop, utility worker, parking enforcement officer, wastewater plant supervisor — or anyone else on a government payroll — should have to subsidize speech with which they disagree.
What’s needed in this post-Janus world are opportunities for public employees to get information about union participation, both pro and con, so they can make educated decisions about whether to be full-fledged members.
Union representatives should be allowed to bring their best case directly to workers. In Tacoma, for instance, the amended police contract guarantees the union at least 30 minutes of access to new employees before they begin field training. This gives unions a fighting chance to combat the “free rider” problem created by the Janus decision. (“Free riders” are employees who enjoy salary increases and other workplace benefits negotiated by unions without paying for the service.)
Union critics, meantime, have spared no effort to erode the influence of organized labor by contacting public employees directly. They got a big lift in October when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that state employee names and birthdates are public records subject to disclosure. Combined with the federal Janus decision, this marked consecutive court victories for the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Call these pressure tactics, if you wish, but we believe workers are capable of sorting through the noise. And while dues-paying membership may slide a bit, unions will remain a viable force as long as they champion the best interests of public employees.
The leader of Washington’s largest union that bargains for state employees said as much last year:
“We’ve anticipated (the Janus ruling) for a number of years,” Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, told The News Tribune. “We’ve been really demonstrating I think value and relevance to our members.”
If unions keep proving those selling points, public-sector workers will keep signing the dotted line for years to come.