Two bills passed by WA legislature expose union hypocrisy on public employee privacy

Two bills passed by WA legislature expose union hypocrisy on public employee privacy

Two bills passed by WA legislature expose union hypocrisy on public employee privacy

Before its adjournment last week, the Washington State Legislature passed two bills—both backed by the state’s government unions—that advance entirely different positions regarding the sensitivity of public employees’ personal information.

One bill, HB 1533, creates a process for public employees purporting to be “survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, harassment, or stalking” to exempt any information about themselves from being disclosed to people seeking government records under the Public Records Act (PRA). Meanwhile, the other bill, HB 1200, requires government employers in the state to regularly turn over the personal contact information—including home addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses—of their employees to labor unions.

While the two bills are at odds in their substance, the common thread is that they both advance public-sector unions’ goal of being the only nongovernmental organizations with the ability to communicate with public employees.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld public employees’ First Amendment right to refrain from joining and paying dues to a union in its Janus v. AFSCME decision, government unions in Washington and around the country have worked overtime to make signing up for membership as easy as possible while making cancelling membership unnecessarily cumbersome. Part of the approach has involved attempting to silence the Freedom Foundation’s efforts to communicate information to public employees about their rights while simultaneously increasing unions’ ability to communicate for the purposes of soliciting membership.

While it’s been well-documented that the purpose of such laws is to target the Freedom Foundation, union-backed lawmakers still feel the need for a fig leaf to cover their real motives during legislative debates. But such defenses quickly crumble under scrutiny.

HB 1533

As they’ve done repeatedly with prior legislation and ballot measures, unions sought to use HB 1533, introduced by Rep. Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma), as a vehicle to limit disclosure of information about public employees under the PRA in the name of protecting employees from targeting and harassment—a worthy goal, to be sure, but a red herring in this case.

As the Freedom Foundation explained in testimony opposing the bill before the Senate State Government Committee, current law already provides robust protections against the misuse of public employee information obtained under the PRA. Further, while many public employees undoubtedly have sincere concerns about their privacy and safety, there are few if any documented cases of public employees being harmed because of information about them disclosed under the PRA.

On the other hand, journalists and open government advocates noted that allowing a public employee to exempt information about themselves from disclosure by alleging victimization could easily be abused by bad actors within government.

As the Seattle Times explained in one of several editorials urging lawmakers to reject HB 1533,

“This bill would keep something as basic as the name and place of employment of the person secret. Those workers would become ghosts, hidden from the people who pay their salaries and deserve government accountability. As the bill is written, parents might not be able to learn the name of their children’s teacher, for example…

Meanwhile, the bill would have unintended consequences that make people less safe. It would provide bad actors a chance to hide behind anonymity without any actual evidence that they need protection…

If there’s an incident of workplace harassment, the steps an agency takes to address the situation might have to remain secret. That would leave co-workers and the public unsure whether the problem was appropriately addressed…”

Nevertheless, as the Seattle Times pointed out in a separate editorial, “HB 1533 is a priority for public employee unions who are using the cover of protecting victims of abuse to enact secrecy they have long coveted.”

The bill passed by wide margins in both chambers after lawmakers amended it to both broaden its scope to cover additional public employees and made minor adjustments to make it more palatable to open government supporters, who have nonetheless called on Gov. Inslee to veto the misguided legislation.

HB 1200

While simultaneously arguing that public employee information should be protected from release, government unions worked diligently to pass HB 1200, a bill giving them access to far more information about public employees than the public could ever obtain under the PRA.

During a hearing on HB 1200 before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-Seattle), argued the law was necessary to ensure unions can communicate with employees and fulfill their representational duties, though she acknowledged under questioning from Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) that unions could use the information to solicit membership, too.

Alvarado also argued that “standardizing” the data-sharing process across public employers would “create efficiency” and help make sure that unions are communicating with employees “off public time.”

Of course, another way to describe “standardization” is “one-size-fits-all” and, while the bill will undoubtedly create efficiencies for unions receiving the information, public employers will now have to expend taxpayer resources and time providing unions with employees’ personal contact information three times a year.

And no sane person genuinely believes unions will cease contacting employees at work once they have their personal information, too.

In fact, as the Freedom Foundation explained in its testimony before the committee, collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between unions and public employees commonly grant unions access to vast amounts of personal contact information already.  

For instance, Article 5 of the current union contract covering individual provider home caregivers represented by SEIU 775 requires the state to provide the union with extensive personal employee information every pay period, including employees’ Social Security numbers.

Even if the terms of a CBA do not explicitly require a public employer to furnish a union with the personal contact information of union-represented public employees, the Public Employment Relations Commission has long held it is illegal under existing state laws for a public employer to refuse to provide such information if a union asks for it.

Disconcertingly, HB 1200 does not meaningfully restrict unions’ ability to use, share or disseminate public employees’ personal contact information. The bill says such information shall be used only for “representational purposes,” but the term isn’t defined. Unions generally argue that everything they do—including political activity and lobbying—is representational, and there are no penalties for misuse.

A lobbyist for the Washington Public Employees Association (WPEA)—a local affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW)—inaccurately claimed during the Senate hearing that unions do not share employee information. If nothing else, UFCW bylaws require that WPEA turn over the “home address, date of birth, cellular phone number, and social security number” to the UFCW headquarters in Washington, D.C., which has no known restrictions on its use of the information. Further, WPEA’s bylaws provide that member information will not be shared unless authorized by UFCW.

While it is appropriate for unions to have the ability at some level to communicate with represented public employees, both current law and HB 1200 unjustifiably give unions preferential access to public employees’ personal information without necessary safeguards to protect employees from unwanted data-sharing and solicitations.

HB 1200 passed both the House and Senate along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition.

Given his long ties to organized labor, Gov. Inslee will undoubtedly sign it into law.

If nothing else, the debate over HB 1533 and HB 1200 proves an enduring truth: Government unions care only about power and are willing to say or do anything to get more of it, even if that means limiting government transparency and forcing taxpayers to subsidize unions’ accumulation of vast amounts of personal data.

Director of Research and Government Affairs
As the Freedom Foundation’s Director of Research and Government Affairs, Maxford Nelsen leads the team working to advance the Freedom Foundation’s mission through strategic research, public policy advocacy, and labor relations. Max regularly testifies on labor issues before legislative bodies and his research has formed the basis of several briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Max’s work has been published in local newspapers around the country and in national outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, National Review, and the American Spectator. His work on labor policy issues has been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, Fox News, and PBS News Hour. He is a frequent guest on local radio stations like 770 KTTH and 570 KVI. From 2019-21, Max was a presidential appointee to the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves contract negotiation disputes between federal agencies and labor unions. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2013, Max worked for and the Washington Policy Center and interned with the Heritage Foundation. Max holds a labor relations certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. A Washington native, he lives in Olympia with his wife and sons.