Freedom Foundation

State Democrats advance bill to protect unauthorized union dues deductions

The U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Janus v. AFSCME has government unions worried. Many court-watchers believe the Justices’ decision in the case — expected in June — will find that it is unconstitutional to require public employees to financially support a labor union as a condition of employment.

Instead of working to improve the value they offer to members to win their support voluntarily, unions in Washington state are backing a series of bills in the state Legislature to try and preserve as much of their coercive regime as possible.

One of the more insidious proposals is SB 6296, introduced by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) and its House companion HB 2751, introduced by Rep. Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver). Sen. Saldana is a former organizer for SEIU Local 6, while Rep. Stonier is a teacher and member of the Washington Education Association.

In short, the bills provide the legal framework necessary to require government employers to automatically withhold full union dues from public employees pay without authorization, even if the Supreme Court strikes down mandatory union dues as unconstitutional in Janus.

The bills copy the approach that SEIU 775 and Gov. Jay Inslee adopted in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Harris v. Quinn decision, which found requiring “partial-public employees” to pay union dues as a condition of employment was unconstitutional. Currently, under Article 4.1 of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) covering the state’s Medicaid-subsidized individual provider home care aides (IPs), the state deducts union dues from the pay of thousands of IPs who have never signed up for SEIU 775 membership or authorized the deductions. IPs must affirmatively object to the deductions in writing to get them to stop, if they learn they have the ability to do so.

In 2017, the Freedom Foundation represented a group of IPs, led by Miranda Thorpe, who had SEIU 775 dues withheld from their pay without permission, in litigation against the union and the state. However, in Thorpe v. Inslee, the Washington Supreme Court ultimately rubber-stamped the practice for the purposes of state law. Another group of caregivers is currently challenging the unauthorized deduction of dues from their pay on constitutional grounds in federal court.

SB 6296 and HB 2751 apply the same statutory language the court relied upon in upholding the opt-out requirement in Thorpe to all public employees, thus paving the way for unions to be able to continue seizing money from employees’ paychecks should they lose in Janus.

Speaking before the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, Rep. Stonier stated:

It is my intent to make sure that workers who come to their workplace are (union) members… I think we just want to it to be clear in Washington state that workers are members of their union first when they are hired into a collective bargaining unit and then, if they so choose to opt out of that union, that comes as a second step.

Similarly, noting before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee that her bill intended to “take into account” the Harris decision, Sen. Saldaña stated, “You can opt-out, but otherwise you’re in.”

Union lobbyists made it clear that the purpose of the bill was to undermine Janus and maximize unions’ dues collection. Brenda Wiest of Teamsters 117 argued that, given “…court cases and other ongoing attacks against working people,” SB 6296 was needed to “…align the other collective bargaining statutes to match changes that occurred after the Harris decision” in order to “(provide) financial certainty” for unions.

In impressive Orwellian style, Joe Kendo of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) contended that having to get public employees’ permission before taking dues from their pay “…automatically deprives workers of their rights,” since they would be unable to exercise the rights of union members to participate in union governance until they paid dues.

Thankfully, in most areas of society, businesses and other entities do not get to presume their products and services are so valuable that they can simply provide them to and collect payment from consumers without any prior authorization.

Just a few months ago, rideshare giant Uber paid $20 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from unsolicited text messages it accidentally sent to some customers. In 2016, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Seattle-based beauty supply company Julep for “(luring) customers into signing up for recurring boxes of Julep products, and then making it very difficult to cancel their subscriptions.”

In a press release, Ferguson stated, “It is maddening for consumers to receive products they don’t want but are charged for. That’s a deceptive way to run a business, and I won’t allow a company to get away with it.”

It’s also a deceptive way to run a union.

Two union-represented employees joined the Freedom Foundation in testifying against SB 6296.

Miranda Thorpe, an IP represented by SEIU 775, explained how she had union dues withheld from her pay without authorization:

Even though I never signed a union membership form, the state proceeded to deduct SEIU dues out of pay without my permission for the next three months until I noticed and demanded that the deductions stop… What I want this committee to understand is that allowing unions to take money from caregivers without permission is hurting families and is immoral on its face… Senate Bill 6296 attempts to do the same thing to public employees that SEIU and Gov. Inslee did to caregivers after the Harris decision… No worker, whether a caregiver or a public employee, should have union dues taken out of their pay without their permission.

Following Miranda, retired school teacher of 37 years Jim Johnson explained why he opposed compelling public employees to pay dues against their will, stating: “It’s not that I’m against (unions), I think it’s just wrong that the union is allowed to just take our money. I think this is absolutely inappropriate.”

Chair of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), former communications director for the WSLC for 25 years, initially attempted to prevent this author from testifying on the bill, moving on to the next bill on the agenda and ignoring his request to testify.

When nonpartisan committee staff pointed out that others had signed in to testify but had not been called upon, Keiser proceeded to the next bill anyway. At this point, Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), asked if Sen. Keiser had intentionally skipped the rest of the public testimony, to which she replied, “We’ve moved on to the next bill… Let’s just move on.”

A copy of the sign-in sheet clearly indicated that this author signed in as wishing to testify and was skipped over during the public comment period. However, at the end of the committee hearing a half-hour later, Sen. Keiser provided an opportunity for the Freedom Foundation to testify on SB 6296.

After this author expressed the Freedom Foundation’s opposition to the bill because, should the Supreme Court strike down mandatory union dues as unconstitutional, SB 6296 would require public employers to seize union dues from public employees’ pay without their authorization, Sen. Keiser interjected.

“What is this verb, ‘seize?’” she asked. “’Seize sounds like somebody’s going into your house and grabbing something… (Deducting union dues from public employees’ pay without authorization) is not seizing dollars out of a person’s pocket… I think your verb is in error.”

Other Democrats on the committee also took issue with the word “seize.” Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma), a former business agent for UFCW Local 81, objected, “It’s not seizing. You’re being a little bit unfair.”

Similarly, Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue), an attorney, took offense at the term, stating: “Well, I will point out that ‘seize’ does have a legal definition attached to it that I think is inapplicable to this situation.”

This author contended throughout the hearing that “seize” was an accurate characterization of the behavior in question and, upon reviewing a dictionary after the hearing, is comfortable that Merriam-Webster would approve of his use of the term “seize” in this context. Going by the dictionary, even “steal” could be appropriate, as one such definition is, “…to take surreptitiously or without permission.”

Sen. Kuderer also contended that, “…there is a form that the employee is given up front and it puts on the form that there is an opt-out. So, when they are signing up, they can opt out so that they could not have any of their money subtracted for dues.”

Under current law, public employees are required to pay union dues and/or agency fees as a condition of employment. While in some rare instances union membership forms provide an option for public employees to indicate they do not wish to be members, the union will continue to withhold a “fee equivalent to dues” from the employees pay.

Furthermore, the new membership forms being distributed by major government unions — such as the Washington Federation of State Employees, Teamsters Local 117 and the Public School Employees of Washington/SEIU 1948 — in anticipation of Janus, provide no option for public employees to indicate they want to “opt out” of union membership or dues. On the contrary, the membership forms attempt to drastically limit the ability of signers to ever cancel dues deductions. And if SB 6296/HB 2751 become law, an employee will have dues withheld from their pay even if they refuse to sign.

Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle), a longtime Teamster, disputed the idea that public employees objected to paying dues. Despite hearing testimony in the same hearing from two such employees, Hasegawa claimed, “In all the years you’ve been presenting to us, I don’t think you’ve ever sat a person to testify before us who was paying dues involuntarily. They were all not members of unions, so apparently they were able to withdraw.”

As this author pointed out in the hearing, several dozen union-represented public employees have testified alongside the Freedom Foundation before Sen. Hasegawa in recent years, all of whom had financial obligations imposed on them by unions against their will.

Lastly, Sen. Hasegawa pointed out that, should the Supreme Court rule against unions in Janus, state law would continue to require government unions to represent all employees in a bargaining unit, including those choosing not to join and pay dues.

When this author suggested that, rather resort to additional coercive measures designed to keep employees paying unions against their will, the state consider relieving unions of the burden of representing nonmembers and allow individuals to bargain with their employer over wages and working conditions directly, Sen. Keiser dismissed the proposal as “the Wild West,” while Sen. Kuderer shot back that, “The idea that employees (are) going to bargain for wages and working conditions individually with an employer I think is quite far-fetched.”

As this author pointed out, however, this is precisely what happens in the 93 percent of the private sector that is not unionized nationally, as well as in the 62 percent of the public sector nationwide that is not represented by unions (more information about how such an arrangement would work is available in Sweeping the Shop Floor).

Nevertheless, both the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee and the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Sells (D-Everett) — who serves as secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council — passed the bill out of committee on a party-line vote.

There are no two ways about it. SB 6296/HB 2751 is simply an attempt to preemptively undermine the First Amendment rights of public employees and maximize union dues collection. The fact that it is being promoted by elected officials who worked for unions professionally or are union activists only adds to appearance that the bills are nothing more than a special interest kickback.

Tell Washington legislators to oppose SB 6296/HB 2751