Lawmakers should extend rights to public union members

When it comes to protecting the rights of union-represented public employees, Washington has some of the worst laws on the books. Legislation under consideration in Olympia could move the state in the right direction, however.

Under federal law, unions may require private sector employees to pay dues as a condition of employment. Federal law also permits states to pass “right-to-work” laws that prohibit employees from being fired for refusing to pay union dues. Wisconsin recently made history by becoming the 25th state to pass such a law.

However, federal law provides a few basic protections even for workers in states without right-to-work laws.

For instance, federal law permits private sector employees to vote out a mandatory dues, or “union security,” provision in their union contract in a “deauthorization” election, effectively making it a right-to-work workplace.

Similarly, unions representing private sector workers must annually file basic financial reports with the U.S. Department of Labor. The reports are publicly available, so private sector union workers can see how their union spends their dues money.

By contrast, collective bargaining for public employees is regulated by state law. Not only has Washington failed to allow public employees to choose for themselves whether to pay union dues, but state law also lacks the rudimentary protections found in federal law.

Two bills under consideration by the state Legislature seek to change that.

Senate Bill 5045 would allow public employees to vote out a mandatory dues provision in their union-negotiated contract, just like their private sector counterparts. Other states like California and Oregon have already given public employees this ability.

Five union workers testified in favor of the legislation during its committee hearing. One worker testified that most of his bargaining unit had signed a petition to get rid of the mandatory dues provision in their contract before they realized state law provided no mechanism for them to do so.

The only opposition came from union lobbyists, who argued incoherently that the bill would be “harmful to the middle class.” Two labor-aligned state senators, including Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, contended that allowing public employees to vote out a union security clause would be “undemocratic.”

Though it passed out of committee, SB 5045 unfortunately never received a full Senate vote.

The Senate did approve SB 5226, however, which would apply federal reporting requirements to unions representing public employees, ensuring that workers who are required to pay union dues could at least know where their money is going. At least six other states have passed similar legislation to require transparency from government unions.

Again, while several union-represented public employees testified in favor of the bill, only union lobbyists opposed it.

After passing the Senate on a bipartisan vote, SB 5226 now languishes in the state House, where it deserves, but is unlikely to receive, a hearing.

Unless the Legislature decides to act, public employees will continue to have little recourse but to pay money to an opaque and unaccountable private special interest group. At the very least, our public servants deserve to have the same protections federal law affords their private sector counterparts.

Grant Pelesky is a former state representative and retired teacher from Puyallup.