In 1959, the U.S. Congress passed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) into law in order to ensure that “labor organizations… and their officials adhere to the highest standards of responsibility and ethical conduct in administering the affairs of their organizations.”
Congress found that in order to protect “the rights and interests of employees and the public generally,” private-sector labor unions should annually report information about union activities, leadership, governance, and finances to the Federal Department of Labor.
But fifty-five years since Congress enacted these important protections for private-sector union workers, Washington’s public-sector union employees still have no such protections.
Under current state law, public employees may be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Public agencies even automatically deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks. However, unions representing only public-sector workers in Washington are under no obligation to report how they spend these funds to their members or the public.
That could change if the legislature adopts SB6300. Introduced by Sen. Randi Becker (R-Yelm), the bill would apply the same reporting standards required of private-sector unions to public-sector unions in Washington.
During the hearing on SB6300 before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, Sen. Becker explained, “This information has been provided to Teamsters and other private unions for years and years. Those members have access so that they can make good, informed decisions as to what is going to affect them in their membership and how they want their money spent.”
At least six other states have taken steps to make sure public-sector unions must report LRMDA-style information.
Representatives of two major public-sector unions testified in opposition to the legislation: Greg Devereux, President of the Washington Federation of State Employees, and Geoff Simpson of the Washington State Council of Firefighters.
Simpson contended that unions’ democratic procedures provide sufficient information to members:
Public sector and all unions are really some of the most democratic organizations there are in this country, and if you want to know what the detailed financial records of your union contain, then go to a union meeting and ask the treasurer what they contain. They’re member organizations. That information is readily available to any member that wants that information. They just have to ask for it.
Six current and former union workers at the hearing told a dramatically different story.
Linda Minor, a Centralia teacher, explained how she has been unable to access the financial information of her union, the Washington Education Association (WEA).
“I don’t mind paying for somebody to bargain for my job position as a teacher, but I would really like to see where the rest of the money is going,” said Minor.
Her concerns were echoed by state-employee Dennis Redmond.
“I don’t have access to the financial disclosures this bill would require,” Dennis explained. “I am involuntarily associated with unions and I have no transparency. These are opaque organizations… I strongly urge you to bring some transparency to these unions. Democratic is not the word at all I would use for how they function.”
In comments at a later hearing, Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) appeared to forget the strong support for the bill among public-sector union workers.
Conway expressed his opposition to the bill, noting that only “maybe one or two employees” supported it.
“We had one foundation here,” Conway argued, “the Freedom Foundation who’s introducing all these bills and I just think that we need to be, we need to have bills before us that are a concern to the public.”
Simpson and Devereux also took pot shots at the Freedom Foundation.
“I’m all for transparency, when we talk about transparency for political activities or for member organizations,” said Simpson. “I’d love to see more transparency, for example, in relation to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.”
Unlike public-sector unions, however, the Freedom Foundation is funded entirely by voluntary donations. At the very least, unions’ extraordinary ability to forcibly collect fees from workers should trigger a higher degree of accountability and transparency with their membership.
Retired state worker Mike Farley summed up the feelings of union workers present in the hearing:
I strongly support SB6300 because, just as federal law protects workers from financial exploitation by requiring that genuine trade unions disclose their financial practices, simple justice and fairness would call for the public sector unions in Washington to do the same.
The committee passed the bill on a party-line vote.
Watch my testimony on SB6300 and the rest of the hearing footage below:
Watch Sen. Conway dismiss the union workers’ testimony below:
UPDATE:Though referred to the Senate floor, no vote on SB6300 was held before the cutoff date. The bill is dead for this session.