State, SEIU dragged kicking and screaming toward change

One way to gauge how seriously a gubernatorial administration takes an issue is to observe how many meetings it devotes to the topic. By that measure, the Inslee administration took the Service Employees International Union’s worries about 2014’s famous Harris case very seriously.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris – that state-reimbursed homecare workers and the like cannot be forced to join a union (or pay shop fees to one) – was a direct threat to SEIU’s business model. Clearly the union feared that if its members were free to choose, many would choose to part ways with SEIU.

After all, if that wasn’t SEIU’s fear, why has it been working so hard to make sure its members stay unaware of the case and its ramifications?

The less known, the better
One of the great ironies here is that SEIU has been wringing its hands over how to hang onto members who may not know that they’re even part of the union. The Freedom Foundation, which has made a mission out of contacting homecare workers to inform them of their right to leave the union, continues to encounter many SEIU members who don’t even know they are SEIU members.

Often these are homecare workers caring for a family member. They were automatically enrolled in the union, and the state automatically started deducting union dues. They never affirmatively joined SEIU. When Harris was handed down, one would think the whole system would have to change.

Not when there’s money to be had
But the union’s interest was in keeping things as much the same as possible. That’s what all those meetings between SEIU and the Inslee administration were about: how do we keep this gravy train going? The discussion was about preserving, as much as possible, the pre-Harris world where dues or fees were mandatory and workers were automatically enrolled. The Freedom Foundation explains the system SEIU and the Inslee team worked out:

“In September [2014], several months after Harris, SEIU 775 and the state convened at the bargaining table to hash out the ‘uncertainty’ wrought by the Supreme Court’s decision. Instead of immediately stopping dues deductions from homecare workers, they agreed to remove the union security provision and replace it with an ‘opt-out’ scheme.

“Under this new scheme, the state still seizes full union dues from the payments to every home care provider. But if a provider objects to the union deductions by informing the union by letter, the state and union will permit that provider to cease paying dues.

“How gracious of them.”

Hanging onto the status quo held enormous benefits for SEIU, which raked in millions in dues, and for (let’s be honest) the Democratic officials who benefit from the union’s political spending. The rights of the workers? Not a part of this conversation.

A legal challenge
Now homecare worker Miranda Thorpe, assisted by the Freedom Foundation, is suing over the opt-out scheme approved by the state and SEIU. Thorpe argues that when the “union security” provision of SEIU’s collective bargaining agreement was removed to deal with Harris, the system of dues collection needed to revert to default state law, which requires specific, affirmative authorization from each represented worker. That didn’t happen (you can read more about the legal reasoning here).

A Superior court judge ruled against Thorpe, but the state Supreme Court took the case on direct review (skipping over an appeals court). Thorpe and the Freedom Foundation argued their case on Thursday.

SEIU’s actions here fit the pattern of their actions in the Freedom Foundation’s records request case: keep workers in the dark and keep the dues money flowing. They also fit the pattern in the WEA “opt out twice” case that I took to the U.S. Supreme Court: make opting out of union membership difficult. It’s just too bad, in the case of the opt-out system put in place after Harris, that our state government was complicit in the whole mess.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.