Earlier this year, the Washington State Legislature passed SB 5297, which allowed for the unionization of the state’s assistant attorneys general (AAG) who litigate cases for the Attorney General’s Office.
However, the bill’s passage and the subsequent unionization of the state’s nearly 600 AAGs is a case study in what’s wrong with government unions. It’s hard to conclude that SB 5297 was anything other than a purely political move to increase union dues collection.
To begin with, at least three of SB 5297’s sponsors were former labor officials (three others were progressive attorneys and one other represents Olympia, where most AAGs and state workers reside). Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) is a former business agent for UFCW Local 81, Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines) served as the communications director for the Washington State Labor Council for 25 years, and Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) formerly worked as an organizer for SEIU Local 6.
Second, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, AAGs’ employer, actually supported the legislation and unionization effort. In the private sector, where unions generally do not have a say in whom they bargain with, employers are generally wary of unions. The natural tension between the two sides helps keep both in check. In government, however, unions know they can elect the people they bargain with. Ferguson has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from unions and, whenever possible, uses his office to advance labor’s agenda.
During a public hearing on SB 5297 before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, Sen. Conway went so far as to express indignation that Ferguson hadn’t supported the unionization of AAGs sooner (as though it is up to Ferguson to pass legislation), asking Ferguson’s chief of staff,
“Why is it taking so long to get this done? … I was just surprised that, given the views of our attorney general, that this wasn’t taken care of earlier.”
Third, in testimony supporting SB 5297, Ferguson’s chief of staff and other supporters argued the bill was necessary to increase the six-figure salaries for AAGs which, they argued, are lower than those of other government lawyers. Majorities in the Legislature apparently agreed, voting to approve the bill by healthy, bipartisan margins.
Yet the ability to raise wages for AAGs was always within the power of the Legislature. For some reason, the same lawmakers who supported unionizing AAGs as a means to secure raises (which the Legislature has to approve anyway), didn’t see fit to simply raise AAGs’ wages by allocating more funds in the budget for that purpose.
Fourth, after SB 5297 was passed, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) petitioned the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) to unionize AAGs via a process called “cross-check.”
Under this inherently coercive scheme, also authorized this year by union-aligned lawmakers in the state Legislature, unions collect signatures from employees one on one. If a union collects signatures from more than half of the bargaining unit, it turns them into PERC and is recognized without employees ever being able to vote on unionization in a secret-ballot election.
Fifth, after PERC recognized WFSE as the exclusive bargaining agent for all AAGs, the governor’s labor negotiators in the Office of Financial Management (OFM) wasted no time negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with WFSE.
Whereas contract negotiations in both government and the private sector can often take months, especially when the parties are negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement, OFM and WFSE reached agreement on the first contract for AAGs in a single week in September. Again, this raises the question: If the state is so eager to increase pay and benefits for AAGs, why was a union needed in the first place?
The cynical, and most likely, answer is that labor-aligned politicians simply want to boost unions’ dues collection and political clout. Sure, the Legislature could just budget more money to give AAGs a raise, but that would only benefit the employees. Big Labor doesn’t get a cut if raises are provided to non-union employees. But now that AAGs are unionized, a portion of AAGs’ wages will flow to WFSE in the form of union dues.
And in the post-Janus v. AFSCME world where unions like WFSE are bleeding members as employees opt out, any opportunity to expand the pool of union-represented workers eligible for membership must be exploited.
Finally, no government collective bargaining regime would be complete without negative effects on the public and the efficient operation of government. Historically, AAGs were political appointees, selected by and serving at the pleasure of the elected attorney general. However, SB 5297 effectively ended this practice by specifying that the attorney general can only terminate an AAG “subject to any collective bargaining agreement.” It’s a sure bet that, before long, the union contract will require that dismissals be “for cause” and required to navigate a lengthy and difficult process.
The upshot? As attorneys general of differing political parties win election, they will be stuck trying to forge a new direction for the office with the staff hired by their predecessors, or maybe even the opponent they just defeated. This will undoubtedly limit the ability of the electorate to influence the priorities and direction of the Attorney General’s Office.
While the passage of SB 5297 and subsequent unionization of AAGs may not amount to corruption in a legal sense, it’s certainly a prime example of special-interest-driven policymaking.