Powerful union in state may feel pinch from Supreme Court ruling on mandatory dues

By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times

Officials assessing impact on state

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — Washington labor, government and business officials are still reading and analyzing the dense U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week on union dues for home health care workers, but many believe Harris v. Quinn will have implications for Washington state.

That impact could go well beyond the 35,000 union represented home health care workers in the state and also affect the thousands who care for children with disabilities in their homes as well as medical interpreters.

“You’ve got a pretty substantial group of people who might be impacted,” state Sen. Steve Conway, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said Tuesday.

Conway, D-Tacoma, said he will have to consult with Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission to understand the full impact of Harris v. Quinn, but he hopes the decision won’t hurt home health care workers who he said have made a lot of progress since voters gave them the right to bargain collectively in 2001.

“From my perspective, the good that has been gained from raising the pay rates for these workers far outweighs the question of free speech here,” said Conway, who has worked in the private sector negotiating contracts with labor unions for more than 20 years.

The conservative Freedom Foundation expects the decision will allow workers to opt out of union participation, saving themselves money but potentially devastating Washington unions.
One of Washington’s most politically potent unions could face new obstacles to its organizing clout after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar union’s ability to collect mandatory dues from workers.

In Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled Monday that thousands of Illinois home-health-care workers cannot be forced to pay fees to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to cover collective-bargaining expenses.

The court’s 5-4 majority said such mandatory fees violate the free-speech rights of workers who disagree with union political activities.

Labor critics said the decision should apply to some local unions, including SEIU Healthcare 775NW, which represents 35,000 home health care workers who contract with the state.

“I don’t see any reason why the SEIU in Washington would not fall under this ruling,” said Maxford Nelsen, labor-policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank.

But state and union officials said they’re still analyzing the decision and were not yet sure of the impacts.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a brief statement saying his office was aware of the decision: “We need time to review it fully and consult with our client agencies to determine what, if any, implications there are for Washington state.”

Jackson Holtz, a spokesman for SEIU Healthcare 775NW, said there are “innumerable” differences between the legal status of Illinois home-health-care workers and those in Washington.

Workers represented by the SEIU here have seen substantial pay and benefit increases, which make “fair share” fees for union representation reasonable, Holtz said.

Holtz added that the SEIU has been “working closely” with the offices of Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee in anticipation of the ruling, in case there are “additional steps” the state needs to take “so that the home-care program continues to be strong.”

If Monday’s precedent were to allow SEIU members here to opt out of paying dues, it could threaten the financial underpinnings of the union, which has become a powerful force in state politics, usually aligned with Democrats.

Purple-shirted SEIU activists are a common sight at political rallies, and the union played a key role in pushing through recent minimum-wage increases in Seattle and SeaTac.

But not all home-health-care workers agree with the union’s left-leaning politics or its mandatory fee structure.

Brad Boardman of Everett said he’s OK with the union charging for what it costs to represent him and other workers in contract talks.

“But they collect much more than that, and they use that money to further their agenda. I don’t happen to agree with the liberal agenda,” he said.

Boardman, who gets paid to care for his developmentally disabled sister-in-law, said he’s not sure if he’d entirely opt out of union fees if that were allowed.

But he said he’d demand a more detailed explanation on how the SEIU spends the $50 a month deducted from his check.

SEIU Healthcare 775NW collected nearly $20 million in dues in fiscal year 2013, according to filings with the Department of Labor.

It spent $2.6 million on political activities and lobbying during that period.

Workers who don’t want to be union members still must pay a lower “agency fee” to help cover the union’s expenses.

In some states, so-called “right to work” laws banning mandatory union dues have hamstrung union finances and organizing efforts.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Last modified: July 01. 2014 8:02PM
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