Freedom Foundation

Seattle’s anti-Janus agreement an objectionable nothingburger

To the fanfare of tweets, press conferences and media statements, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced on Tuesday the city had signed an agreement with a coalition of unions representing public employees to protect them from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which held that public employees cannot be required to pay a union as a condition of employment.

While the agreement contains many objectionable components, it did little that was not already either common practice or required by state law.

At a press conference, Durkan derided Janus as an “assault upon workers’ rights and peoples’ right to join a union.” She failed to explain how merely recognizing public employees’ right to refrain from joining a union assaulted their right to join one, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The much-ballyhooed amendment to the city’s collective bargaining agreements contained several provisions.

First, the city agreed to deduct union dues from the wages of public employees authorizing such deductions. While taxpayers should not subsidize union dues collection, the practice is nothing new. State law has required and continues to require government employers to collect dues for unions from public employees’ wages. Seattle performed this function prior to Janus and will continue to do so.

The city’s agreement even acknowledges it can longer force public employees to support a union financially. The only substantive concession is that the city will enforce the terms of union membership agreements, which typically limit signers’ ability to resign to narrow annual escape periods. The state is on the verge of passing legislation requiring this of government employers anyway, and the Freedom Foundation is already challenging the validity of these restrictions in federal court. Seattle’s new agreement changes effectively nothing.

Second, the agreement provides that the city will allow unions to make a 30-minute membership pitch to newly hired employees. This was required of all public employers after the Washington Legislature passed SB 6229 last year in anticipation of Janus. It’s a bad policy that subjects public employees to union coercion and pressure tactics, and the Freedom Foundation opposed the legislation, but Seattle announcing it will comply with state law is hardly news.

If anything, the newsworthy item is that Seattle’s agreement actually appears to violate state law. The agreement states,

“The City will require all new employees to attend a New Employee Orientation (NEO) within thirty (30) days of hire. The NEO will include an at-minimum thirty (30) minute presentation by a Union representative to all employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement.”

However, the state law requiring such union presentations also provides that, “No employee may be mandated to attend the meetings or presentations…”

Thirdly, the agreement specifies the city will “…remain neutral on the issue of whether any bargaining unit employee should join the Union…” Big deal. The state Public Employment Relations Commission has held repeatedly it is an unfair labor practice for government employers to pressure employees to resign their union membership.

Fourth, the city’s agreement obligates it to provide unions with employees’ personal contact information, including names, home addresses and personal phone numbers and email addresses. This requirement is a bit more troubling, since no state law requires it and because unions have regularly sought to prevent groups like the Freedom Foundation from obtaining lists of public employees. But it’s common enough for provisions like this to be included in union collective bargaining agreements.

Finally, the agreement requires the city to grant a certain number of employees eight hours of “paid release time” per year to participate in union “training.” While Durkan talked up unions’ value in enhancing employee skills, “training” is not defined in the agreement and could quite possibly consist of any union-sanctioned activity, including lobbying or political advocacy. Again, there is no justification for forcing taxpayers to fund union activities and no state law requires it, but such provisions are common in public-sector collective bargaining agreements.

In short, consider the city’s agreement an almost-nothingburger. It’s hard not to conclude the whole rollout was little more than cheap virtue signaling by city leaders eager to pander to organized labor.