Every year since 2014, Sen. Randi Becker (R-Eatonville), has introduced Freedom Foundation-supported legislation in the Washington State Senate to require government unions to be transparent with their members about their finances and expenditures. Each time, unions have opposed the legislation by employing half-truths, paeans to unions' democratic principles and attempts to confuse the issue.
So far, 2017 has been no different.
Since 1959, unions representing private-sector workers have been required by the federal Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) to file annual financial reports with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) detailing their receipts, expenditures, compensation of union staff and officers, etc. Federal employees have been able to access similar information about their unions since Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
However, because non-federal public employees fall under the jurisdiction of state law, unions representing only this type of worker have no legal obligation to be financially transparent with their members unless the state adopts its own LMRDA-style reporting requirements.
Of the states that provide for public-sector collective bargaining, at least six— including Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts and Ohio—have adopted laws requiring government unions to provide their members with the kinds of basic financial information private-sector unions have to report under the LMRDA.
Ensuring union-represented public employees have access to this kind of information is particularly critical in states like Washington where public employees can be required to financially support a union as a condition of employment. Preferably, state law would protect public employees' right to make their own choices about union membership. In such an environment, unions that weren't forthcoming with the employees they represent would risk losing members and dues.
But so long as government employees can be fired for refusing to financially support a union, state law should at least provide employees with some basic consumer protections to help them monitor their unions and keep them accountable.
According to a Freedom Foundation analysis of state laws and union membership by state (courtesy of unionstats.com), at least 70.6 percent of union-represented workers nationwide either (1) can voluntarily choose whether to join a union and pay dues or (2) have access to LMRDA-style financial information for their union. Washington's public employees fall into the unfortunate 29.4 percent that can be forced to financially support a union without any transparency in return.
This year, SB 5371 seeks to change that by requiring unions representing only non-federal public employees in Washington to file the same information with the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) their private-sector counterparts have had to report to DOL for nearly 60 years.
At the hearing on SB 5371 before the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee on Feb. 6, Sen. Becker argued the Legislature should pass the bill to "…make sure that people actually have access to the information that I think is critical for them to know."
Immediately, Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) pushed back, arguing that, "The information is already available to folks who are interested through the Department of Labor."
In reply, Sen. Becker noted, "What we have found is that not all information is made available to the members, and the members are the ones that pay the dues, and the members are the ones that should have access to that information… This mirrors federal law."
As in the past, only union lobbyists testified against the bill.
Geoff Simpson, a lobbyist for the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters (WSCFF), dismissed the bill as "unnecessary" and "onerous" because "we have democracy in our unions" and "financial information is available to any member who wants it."
Similarly, Teamsters Local 252 lobbyist Darren O'Neil argued,
"My members and the members of all public employee unions in Washington state have access to this information and, to me, this seems like it's putting a burden just for the sake of putting a burden on the unions, when this information is all available."
(At the hearing on the bill before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 20, Simpson again repeated his claim that the bill was "unnecessary." This time, he was joined by Steve Segall of the Washington Federation of State Employees, who attacked the bill as "misguided" and — you guessed it — "unnecessary.")
Two former union-represented public employees joined the Freedom Foundation in speaking in favor of the bill, offering comments markedly different from those of the union lobbyists.
Barbara Amidon, a former Olympia public school counselor, testified that, "In fact, the teachers' union does not have that information available to teachers when asked."
"I think what the public wants, including employees, is transparency," argued retired state employee Gerald Marsh. "What they have today with respect to the union is not transparency."
So which is it? Do Washington's public employees' unions already report financial data or not?
Simpson and O'Neil are partially correct. Both of their unions currently do file annual reports with DOL under the LMRDA. Under SB 5371, the only thing their unions would have to do is send a copy of their LRMDA reports to PERC.
However, as the DOL website notes, "A union that represents only employees of state, county, or municipal governments is not subject to the LMRDA or the CSRA."
But there are plenty of major unions in this category in Washington that have no legal requirement to be financially transparent with their members, including:
- The Washington Education Association. With approximately 82,000 members, it is the largest union in the state.
- Professional and Technical Employees Local 17.
- Washington Public Employees Association/UFCW 365.
- Washington State Council of County and City Employees/AFSCME Council 2.
- Washington State Patrol Troopers Association.
- Most International Association of Fire Fighters Locals (the state council does report, however)
- Police unions.
Michael Sellars, executive director of PERC, confirmed these facts in his testimony before the committee, noting that, while "some unions who represent public employees in Washington are covered by the federal law because they also represent private-sector employees," "there are a number of unions that are not covered by the federal legislation…"
Nevertheless, when it came time to vote on the bill, each of the committee's four Democrats, each of whom has a background working for labor unions (Sen. Karen Keiser for the WSLC, Sen. Bob Hasegawa for the Teamsters, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña for the SEIU, and Sen. Steve Conway for the UFCW) voted against the bill, but it passed with the support of the committee's five Republicans.
SB 5371 subsequently passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee on a 13-10, party-line vote. However, although a previous version of the bill, SB 5226, passed out of the Senate in 2015, SB 5371 did not receive a vote in the full Senate this year.
Hearing on SB 5371 before the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee on Feb. 6, 2017:
Hearing on SB 5371 before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 20, 2017:
"State Senate Passes Two Bills to Increase Government Union Transparency," Freedom Foundation, Mar. 13, 2015.
"Senate Committee Passes Bill to Require Financial Transparency from Government Unions," Freedom Foundation, Feb. 11, 2015.
"With Great Union Power Comes No Responsibility," Freedom Foundation, Feb. 11, 2014.
Grant Pelesky, "Lawmakers should extend rights to public union members," Tacoma News Tribune, Mar. 24, 2015.