The Washington State House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee today voted to pass House Bill 1888, which would curtail the release of certain public employee information under the state Public Records Act.
Government unions have made the legislation a top priority for the 60-day legislative session. While unions’ public arguments frame the issue as one of “safety and privacy,” they can’t conceal that the real aim of the proposal is to hamper the Freedom Foundation’s successful and ongoing work to help public employees learn about and exercise their constitutional right to stop the deduction of union dues from their wages.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down states laws requiring public employees to financially support labor unions as a condition of employment, the number of state workers supporting the Washington Federation of State Employees/AFSCME Council 28 (largest state employee union) has declined by more than 27 percent.
To combat the Foundation’s efforts, HB 1888 would exempt public employees’ dates of birth — a key mechanism for distinguishing between public employees with the same or similar names — from disclosure under the Public Records Act (PRA). The bill would also require government agencies to provide unions with notice of and an opportunity to file litigation to stop or delay any public records requests for lists of public employees.
At a union rally in support of the bill on Thursday, Cherica Carter, the Washington State Labor Council’s political and strategic campaigns director, denounced the Freedom Foundation by name because of its opposition to the bill.
Newspapers from around the state and other open government advocates, who routinely use public employees’ dates of birth to verify identities when engaged in investigative reporting, have also widely panned the proposal, with the Seattle Times editorial board condemning the measure no less than four times this year alone.
Due to resistance from the media, the bill was amended in committee to allow the “news media” to continue to have access to public employees’ full dates of birth. While the media should, indeed, continue to have access to such information, the precedent of the Legislature picking and choosing who can access “public” records is deeply troubling, especially when no public policy concern justifies the restrictions.
In five years of litigation and legislative debate over the issue, unions have yet to document a case of the PRA being used to harm a public employee. And even if the bill passes, most public employees will have no more protection than they do currently, since the names, dates of birth and mailing addresses of all registered voters are still subject to public disclosure.
What unions are really seeking is control over the flow of information to public employees. Under HB 1888, unions would continue to have incredible access to detailed personal information about public employees under the terms of collective bargaining agreements negotiated with government entities.
For instance, SEIU 775’s collective bargaining agreement with the state requires the state to provide the union with the following information about state-paid home caregivers:
- Home phone number
- Cell phone number
- Email address
- Date of birth
- Social Security Number
- Marital status
- Primary language
- Hire date
- Pay rate
- Hours worked
- Relationship to their client(s)
Once a union has this information, it can use it to solicit membership and political contributions, communicate union messages, share it with ideologically aligned third-parties, or put it to whatever use it likes.
Apparently, union-backed lawmakers ostensibly concerned about employee privacy are unconcerned about the possibility that this actually sensitive information will be misused.
However, the increasing number of federal lawsuits filed by the Freedom Foundation on behalf of public employees whose signatures were forged by union organizers on membership forms serves as a stark reminder that confidence in the integrity of government unions is misplaced.
All who care about the accountability and transparency of state and local government should be deeply concerned about the precedent set by HB 1888. The Freedom Foundation will continue to oppose this legislation and similar efforts to weaken the PRA with special-interest exemptions.