The Washington Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Feb. 15 found the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 598 (UA 598) and 35 businesses employing its members violated state campaign finance laws by deducting a portion of employees’ wages as contributions to the union’s political action committee (PAC) without first obtaining proper authorization from the employees.
The finding came after the Freedom Foundation filed a complaint with the PDC in November 2018 against the Pasco-based union regarding its illegal scheme to fund its PAC.
Because Washington state has not extended right-to-work protections to private-sector employees, unions like UA 598 can require employees to financially support the union as a condition of employment.
However, state law provides that no money can be withheld from an employee’s wages “for contributions to political committees or for use as political contributions” without the employee’s affirmative, written authorization. In addition, state law protects employees’ rights to cancel such deductions at any time, to be free from discrimination for their decision to make or refrain from making political contributions, and to receive annual notice of their rights.
Rather than attempt to persuade employees to opt in to contributing to its PAC by providing an authorization specifically for that purpose, UA 598 included language directing the employer to withhold 0.7 percent of the employee’s wages for the union PAC on the form employees must sign authorizing the employer to deduct union dues from their wages. The forms provided no mechanism for an employee to indicate he or she did not want to contribute to the PAC. They also lacked required disclosures informing employees that PAC contributions are voluntary and that they cannot be discriminated against for failing to contribute.
Though the union claimed it would cancel the PAC deductions after the fact if an employee requested it, employees were never informed of this option. As a result, the scheme resulted in a nearly 100 percent contribution rate to the PAC among the union’s members, generating more than $280,000 in 2018 alone.
While the PDC did not impose any fines or penalties against the employers or the union for the illegal deductions made at UA 598’s direction, it sent a warning letter to the parties directing them to bring their practices into alignment with state law.
The PDC’s letter to the Freedom Foundation resolving the complaint noted any form to authorize the deduction of political contributions from an employee’s wages “should be a stand-alone form with its own signature.” The PDC correctly emphasized:
“The authorization must be an ‘opt-in’ system where the employee affirmatively requests to have wages or salaries withheld for political contributions. This means the authorization may not require the employee to ‘opt-out’ in order to avoid making a political contribution.”
Assuming UA 598 and the employers with which it does business properly observe the law in the future, as they’ve indicated to the PDC they will, the 1,200 employees represented by the union will now finally have the ability to choose for themselves whether to contribute their hard-earned funds to support the union’s political fund.