Washington’s workers deserve to know what rights they have

June 28, 2013 

No one gets to tell you where to get your gym membership, what political party to join or where to attend religious services, and no one should. The choice of how to participate in each of these organiza-tions — or whether to participate at all — is solely up to you.

Shouldn’t union membership work the same way?

In Washington, state law permits workers to be forced to pay fees to a union as a condition of their employment. Furthermore, unions often make arrangements for the employer to simply withhold union dues from a worker’s paycheck. The worker does not get to write the check for those dues and is left completely out of the process.

For a variety of reasons, many employees resent aspects of their union membership and wish they had another option. A recent survey conducted by the National Employee Freedom Week coalition on behalf of the Freedom Foundation found that more than one-third of union households in Washington would leave their union if they could do so without facing penalties such as losing their jobs.

What very few workers realize is that alternatives to union membership do exist.

While state law makes it impossible for individual union workers to completely free themselves from paying union-related fees, there are three options for workers who object to their union membership.

First, workers who disagree with their union’s political activity can opt out of official union membership and become an “agency fee-payer.” Although agency fee-payers still have to pay their monthly union dues, they may request a yearly refund from the union of whatever portion of their dues went to support political activity, usually around 20 to 30 percent.

For a teacher paying nearly $1,000 in dues each year, the rebate can be worth up to several hundred dollars.

Unions are political animals. One major union, the Service Employees International, claims to be “the most effective advocacy and political organization in North America.” In Washington, unions spend millions of dollars each election to elect candidates and promote causes. That may be well and good if you agree with the political positions of union leaders, but many workers do not. Becoming an agency fee-payer is one way for workers to avoid being forced to support, through their union, political causes they disagree with.

A second option exists for religious workers. If membership in a particular union violates a worker’s sincere religious beliefs in some way, he or she may become a “religious objector.”

Under this arrangement, the employee still has to pay the full dues amount, but can choose to have the money go to support a charity instead of the union. This frees the worker from having to financially support any union activity that contradicts his or her religious beliefs.

Lastly, if a worker can get enough support from colleagues in the bargaining unit, it is possible to decertify a union as the exclusive bargaining representative in the workplace. Employees may use the decertification process to change which union represents them or to eliminate union representation entirely.

Just last fall, teachers in Waterville, Douglas County, decided to no longer be represented by the state teacher’s union, which is heavily political, and instead formed their own local union. The process is cumbersome and subject to narrow time restrictions, but it is possible.

Membership in a union may be right for many people. Ultimately, however, each worker should be free to make his or her own choice about belonging to a union. Until state law is changed to give workers this ability, all employees should at least know their options.

Maxford Nelsen is a labor policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank in Olympia.

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