Washington Democrats advance bill to permit electronic union organizing

Washington Democrats advance bill to permit electronic union organizing

Washington Democrats advance bill to permit electronic union organizing

At least officially, the purpose of Washington’s collective bargaining laws is to empower public employees “to form, join, or assist” labor unions “of their own choosing,” and to “refrain” from so doing, without “interference, restraint, or coercion.”

While union-aligned state lawmakers’ rhetoric often reflects these lofty principles, their actions often demonstrate outright hostility to employees’ right to refrain from union representation and membership.

The latest example is Senate Bill 6060. Introduced by Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-White Center), the seemingly innocuous proposal would allow government unions to utilize electronic signatures when seeking to organize new groups of public employees.

In Nguyen’s telling, the legislation would “modernize” union representation rules and increase “efficiency, equality, and empowerment.” For its part, the Washington State Labor Council emphasizes the difficulty of collecting physical signatures when so many government employees continue to work remotely.

Fair enough. In an increasingly digital world, maybe there isn’t a good reason not to permit electronic signatures in union representation petitions, so long as there are adequate safeguards to prevent fraud.

In the years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME made union membership optional for public employees, some government workers in Washington have reported unions forging their signatures on membership forms, prompting their employers to begin unauthorized union dues deductions from their paychecks.

Still, the forgeries have involved both paper and electronic union membership forms and, at least under Washington’s current, anything-goes rules for union membership recruitment, one method probably isn’t more secure than the other.

The real problem with SB 6060 is that it doesn’t go far enough.

The state agency administering Washington’s collective bargaining laws for public employees — the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) — processes three kinds of representation petitions: (1) petitions filed by unions seeking to represent groups of non-union employees; (2) petitions filed by unions seeking to supplant an incumbent union; and, (3) petitions filed by employees seeking to decertify the union currently representing them.

To proceed, state law requires that each of these three petition types be supported by signatures from at least 30 percent of the affected employees.

Under SB 6060, unions could use electronic signatures in their efforts to unionize new groups of employees while those seeking to change unions or remove an unwanted union would still have to gather John Hancocks the old-fashioned way. But if the goal is to “empower” public employees to choose whatever union representation they wish, shouldn’t electronic signatures be permitted across the board?

Unfortunately, the omission is no oversight.

The bill’s supporters point out that the National Labor Relations Board — which administers private-sector union rules — and PERC-equivalent agencies in Minnesota, Oregon, and California allow electronic signatures in union representation petitions. However, except for California, each of these entities allows electronic signatures for all representation petitions, not just those seeking to form new unions.

And when Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia) offered an amendment to permit electronic signatures for all types of representation petitions, the Labor and Commerce Committee’s Democrat majority voted it down, even though the lone senator to speak against it—Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), a former union organizerstruggled to articulate any coherent objection.

As it is, the deck is stacked against workers seeking to change their union representation. While unions can form at any time, state laws arbitrarily limit petitions to change unions or decertify to 30-day filing periods occurring as infrequently as every six years. Thanks to another recent law, to change unions or decertify, employees must vote in favor of the change in a PERC-run, secret-ballot election, but a union can represent a new group of employees without an election if it can persuade or pressure most of them to sign petition cards.

Regrettably, SB 6060 appears to be just the latest power play by progressive majorities in Olympia to boost their political allies by corralling government employees into unions—and keeping them there.

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.