The Washington State Senate recently passed HB 1575 off the floor in a 25-21 vote, almost entirely along party lines. The House floor vote was similarly split — the bill, which the Senate amended, now goes back to the House for a concurrence.
Depending on who you talk to, the bill either brings the state into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision from last year, or it fights against the decision at the state level.
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The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case last year found that requiring nonmembers of public-sector unions to pay “fair share fees” is a violation of the First Amendment. Since Washington is not a “right-to-work” state, unions were previously able to collect fees from nonmembers to cover costs related to the collective bargaining process and matters affecting wages and hours. The Janus decision effectively banned that practice, requiring an employee’s clear consent before dues are deducted from their pay.
HB 1575 makes it so public employers and public employee organizations won’t get in legal trouble for collecting fees in a way that was legal before the Janus decision, as long as the fees were paid before the decision was issued. It also removes “union security provisions,” agreements that require employees to join a union or pay a fee equal to dues, from state collective-bargaining statutes.
Beyond that, the bill makes changes to the processes public employees can follow to unionize, elect to pay union dues, and revoke their decision to pay dues.
Under the bill, the process for electing to pay dues differs from the process for revoking that decision, which was subject to debate on the Senate floor last week.
The bill allows public-sector employees to give permission to deduct union dues via electronic, voice, or written authorization. That authorization, then, is in effect until they submit a written request for it to be revoked to the union — not their employer directly. The union then passes the word on to their employer.
It also changes the threshold for the percentage of employees that have to authorize union representation before that union is certified as their representative. For most public employees, a union has to currently submit signature cards from 70% of employees to unionize. The bill would lower that threshold to 50%.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña said in floor debate that the bill provides clarity, at a state level, in regard to last year’s Supreme Court decision.
“It is a bill that aligns our current statutes with the Janus decision and clearly defines the relationship between the union and the employee,” Saldaña said.
That’s a sentiment echoed by The Stand, a platform run by the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and its affiliated unions.
“The Washington State Senate on Friday approved landmark collective bargaining legislation that brings state laws into compliance with last year’s Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and provides clarity and consistency for public employee union membership in Washington state,” a recent legislative update on The Stand reads.
Sen. Steve Conway argued that the Janus decision shouldn’t be the standard at all, saying that the Supreme Court didn’t rule in a similar way for eight decades leading up to the case.
“For years, we allowed the national labor relations board and the public employment relations commission to manage these relationships between members and their unions,” Conway said. “And now, we’re injecting politics right into that relationship and destroying a relationship that has helped build the middle class in this country. I’m sorry, Janus takes us backwards, not forwards. And to suggest that we should use Janus here as a standard to meet is absolutely wrong.”
On the other side of the debate, The Freedom Foundation, a think-tank that has a history of trying to limit the influence of unions, has said the bill would make it easy for unions to deduct dues but difficult to cancel deductions, make it easier for public employees to unionize, and “shield unions from legal liability under state law” for the pre-Janus practice of deducting fees from nonmembers’ pay.
“Union-backed lawmakers in Olympia are establishing quite a track record of passing illegal and unconstitutional laws to benefit their political allies at the expense of public employees’ civil liberties,” said Maxford Nelsen, the Freedom Foundation’s director of labor policy, in a press release.
On the Senate floor, many Republican Senators argued that the bill weakens the rights of individuals, with Sen. Curtis King calling the bill “utterly unbelievable.”
“The Janus ruling was not an anti-union decision, it was a ruling about rights, it was a ruling about freedom,” King said. “It said the individual can decide what they want to do. You cannot be forced to join a union to get a public job. It’s about freedom. That’s all it was about.”
Sen. John Braun said the failed amendments made it clear that the bill’s fate was decided before floor debate.
“It seems pretty clear to me that this decision was already made,” Braun said. “That no modification, no improvement, no refinement could be accepted. And, frankly…that’s very disappointing.”
However, Braun also said he’s “really not that worried about it,” in-part because he thinks the matter will be taken up by the courts.
If the bill is ultimately signed into law, The Freedom Foundation has signaled that a legal challenge is likely to follow.
“We won’t stand by and allow the unions and the legislature to run roughshod over the constitution,” said Nelsen of The Freedom Foundation. “We look forward to challenging this power grab in court at the first possible opportunity.”