Unionize management? Washington state is considering it.

Unionize management? Washington state is considering it.

Unionize management? Washington state is considering it.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME freed public employees from having to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment, the Democrat-controlled Washington State Legislature has attempted to offset the declining membership of its largest campaign backers by passing laws to unionize groups of public employees previously thought to be a poor fit for unionization.

In 2019, the Legislature paved the way for the unionization of assistant attorneys general. In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to unionize their own staff, though confronting the deleterious effects of a unionized workforce on legislative productivity and efficiency could ironically prove to be a teachable moment for union-enamored lawmakers.

With the ranks of non-union state employees dwindling, union-backed lawmakers this year have set their sights on the cadre of managerial employees running state agencies. 

HB 1122, introduced by Rep. Beth Doglio (D-Olympia), and its identical senate companion, SB 5141, introduced by Sen. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), would allow for the unionization of executive employees in the Washington Management Service (WMS).

Few if any states have provided for the unionization of management employees on the scale of what is proposed by this legislation. Though the implications are uncertain, they are likely to be widespread and significant.

Existing civil service rules governing WMS employees could be overwritten by union contracts.

For instance, while managers are not subject to statutory civil service rules, the Legislature has previously directed the Office of Financial Management to adopt a comprehensive body of regulations governing the employment of state managers that essentially constitutes a civil service system. Among other things, these rules provide that “managers may only be reduced, dismissed, suspended, or demoted for cause.”

The Legislature has directed that these rules meet certain goals, such as “promoting upward mobility,” “flexibility in setting and changing salaries,” emphasizing “individual accountability” and “efficient management of resources,” valuing and managing workplace diversity, “strengthening management training and career development,” “empowering employees by enabling them to share in workplace decision making” and “promoting a workplace where the overall focus is on the recipient of the government services and how these services can be improved.”

However, existing law, which would not be changed by HB 1122/SB 5141, provides that collective bargaining agreements for state employees supersede any “executive order, administrative rule, or agency policy” they may conflict with.

In other words, the entire regulatory civil service system currently governing employment of state managers according to the goals established by the Legislature could be supplanted through collective bargaining, as dictated by union priorities.

State government is going to be less reflective of voters’ intent and more insulated from change at the ballot box.

Managers, by definition, are charged with formulating and/or implementing statewide policy and directing “the work of an agency or agency subdivision.” They also oversee agency branch offices and have “substantial responsibility in personnel administration, legislative relations, public information or the preparation and administration of budgets.” They “exercise authority that is not merely routine or clerical in nature and requires the consistent use of independent judgment.”

Simply put, managers are critical in developing and implementing state policy. Unionization of managers and the accompanying work rules designed to protect their interests and shield them from accountability and change will inevitably make it more difficult for elected officials, in both the legislative and executive branches, to implement the policy objectives they were elected by voters to pursue.  

WMS employees are unlikely to see significant increases in pay as a result of unionization and, if they do, it will come at the expense of the employees they supervise.

WMS employees earn up to $300,456 per year, more than three times the salary of the average working Washingtonian and 23 percent more than the highest-paid state department secretaries. Historically, the Legislature has consistently increased the salaries of WMS employees at the same rate it has increased wages for union-represented state workers.

In terms of compensation, the only reason it would be in the interest of WMS employees to unionize would be to attempt to secure wage increases larger than those negotiated by the unions representing general government civil service employees. But given that state funds are finite, this necessarily pits managers’ interests against those of the employees they supervise.

Further complicating matters, it is a near certainty the unions representing managers will be the same unions that already represent civil service workers. While managers are fewer in number, their higher salaries mean they will provide a disproportionate share of the unions’ dues revenue. Whose interests will these unions prioritize at the bargaining table?

Under existing law, WMS employees will generally be deprived of the ability to vote on whether to unionize.

Due to passage of HB 1575 in 2019, unions seeking to organize new groups of public employees are permitted to do so without winning support from a majority of employees in a secret ballot vote, and this has since become the norm. However, when the Legislature granted legislative employees collective bargaining rights last year via HB 2124, it guaranteed their right to vote on whether to unionize “in a secret election by mail ballot administered by the [Public Employment Relations Commission].” WMS employees deserve the same protections to make up their own minds about unionization free from external pressure or coercion.


If the Legislature believes that WMS employees’ wages or working conditions need to be changed or improved, it has all the tools at its disposal necessary to do so; outsourcing this responsibility to private, third-party labor unions is entirely unnecessary. But that would do nothing to direct more taxpayer funds into union coffers, which is, after all, the whole point.

At this rate, it won’t be long before state cabinet secretaries, the governor and lawmakers themselves are the only state employees not represented by a union. But who is to say the Legislature will stop even there? Forget term limits; union-negotiated tenure for elected officials is just what the state needs.

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 WashingtonVotes.org 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.