More than a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling likely to shake the left side of Washington politics. But this state hasn’t heard in any official way what effect Harris vs. Quinn will have – and now it looks like we’ll have to wait for a legal decision sometime in the months or even years ahead.
But what a punchline this one will likely carry. The June 30 federal ruling concerns a clever strategy to beef up membership in the Service Employees International Union in Illinois, similar in every way to an SEIU organizing effort in Washington. Read between the lines and it is possible to see that Washington taxpayers may be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.
The union has become a national powerhouse in recent years by organizing workers who have not traditionally been considered state employees, like childcare workers and those who care for the elderly and disabled at home. These workers, often at or just above minimum wage, are the least like traditional punch-the-clock union workers of any on the typical state payroll. Which explains why organizing efforts began in earnest only a decade ago, after most other public employees were already under union contract.
The high court ruled these “partial public employees” in Illinois are so different that they cannot be compelled to pay union dues or an equivalent “agency fee.” Without that compulsion, participation can be expected to fall, perhaps precipitously.
One might think the ruling would have a major effect in Washington. There are some 41,500 workers who are considered public employees for collective bargaining purposes only. Most of them are the 33,000 home health care workers who are required to pay dues or fees to SEIU Local 775. Similar arrangements govern childcare workers represented by SEIU Local 925 and interpreters represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees. Residential home care workers are represented by the Residential Care Council, but do not pay mandatory union fees.
Considering how much influence SEIU has had in Washington state politics in recent years, the ruling could be a major blow for the coalition of progressive interests that has increasingly led policy development for Democrats in the Legislature. Last election cycle, SEIU spent a whopping $2.9 million to influence elections in Washington state, most of it through independent campaigns for favored candidates. Other money went to Washington, D.C. to support the union’s national program.
SEIU declines comment on its policies in this state, says Local 775 spokesman Jackson Holtz. But it has sent letters to home health care workers who have objected to paying agency fees in the past, saying their mandatory payments will stop. Conservative activists cheer: The system is stacked in favor of labor, complains Maxford Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation, the conservative Olympia think tank that has made union political spending a top issue.
But the final blow has yet to come. The day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson promised an analysis of how the ruling would affect Washington state. Nearly six weeks later, state Sen. Jon Braun, R-Centralia, got tired of waiting and requested an informal opinion laying down the law. On Friday the attorney general’s office turned him down.
The problem is that a class-action lawsuit anticipating the U.S. Supreme Court decision was filed in federal court in Seattle last April on behalf of four Washington home health care workers. Centeno vs. the Department of Social and Health Services charges the mandatory dues were improper; Harris vs. Quinn makes it look like a slam-dunk. The suit is one of a number filed nationwide. The attorney general’s office won’t offer an opinion when litigation is pending, says spokeswoman Alison Dempsey-Hall.
That much is reasonable; the attorney general’s office can hardly be expected to offer an evenhanded analysis when it must defend the state’s position in court. But here is the point taxpayers might find chilling. The lawsuit seeks a full refund, plus attorney fees, from both the union and the state. Tens of millions of dollars are involved. Given the state’s joint and several liability laws, the money stands a good chance of coming from taxpayers’ pockets. Ultimately that was the cleverest thing about the union organizing strategy — the state is on the hook.