Union Demands Wash. Workers Be Fired

Published February 1, 2006

On November 2, 2005, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), Washington state’s largest public employee union, delivered a list of 800 workers’ names to the state Labor Relations Office. The state then notified those employees they would be fired just after Christmas if they did not acquiesce to the union’s demands.

Their crime? Not paying union dues.

Cheryl Conn, a vocational consultant with the state Department of Labor and Industries, was told she would be terminated if she ignored the union. “When I made the major life decision to take a job at L&I, no one told me that WFSE had such a status or any rights to my position,” Conn said.

“The union’s termination demands are the most recent in a long series of outrages,” said Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, in Olympia, Washington.

Secretive Contract Negotiations

The Washington Personnel System Reform Act of 2002 allows public-sector unions to negotiate wage and hour guidelines for employees directly with the governor’s office rather than with individual agencies. The first collective bargaining agreements were negotiated throughout 2004, affecting 62,000 general government and higher education employees.

In an 11th hour negotiation deal, the state allowed unions to insert a “union security” clause in the contract, requiring all covered employees to either join the union and pay dues or pay “representation fees” without the benefit of union membership. In exchange, the union agreed to allow all affected employees, including current non-members, to ratify the contract.

When it came time for employees to ratify the new contract, unions failed to notify the affected workers. Thousands were never informed of the details of the new contracts covering their positions or of their right to decide whether to approve those agreements. Some employees learned of the contract ratification vote just minutes before polls closed. Of 30,000 employees covered by WFSE at the time, only 6,133 voted.

Union Ignores Dissent

When details of the new contract emerged, hundreds of employees protested the union’s secretive ratification. One group of employees, led by former union organizer Kahle Jennings, formed a grassroots network called Frustrated Employees Deploring Unfair Practices (Fed-Up).

“After the master contract was approved and I found out that it contained a mandatory union security clause, I felt lied to, used, and betrayed,” said Jennings. Fed-Up organized efforts to decertify the union and staged a demonstration in March 2005 at the Washington state capitol grounds to protest the union’s tactics.

Instead of soliciting and responding to member suggestions, the union lashed out against the groups, calling them “shadowy front groups,” “anti-government,” and “the Axis of Evil.”

In April 2005, more than 30 bargaining units, representing fully 36 percent of the unionized general government workforce, filed to decertify their unions. Most decertification efforts failed as Fed-Up groups were overmatched by paid union organizers and unable to gather enough signatures to force a vote.

Resistance Continues

Despite the outcry among state workers, the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect July 1, 2005. When the deadline for paying union fees arrived, some 3,000 had not signed their dues authorization cards.

As provided for in the collective bargaining agreement, the union gave the state its list of non-paying employees and demanded the state initiate termination proceedings. Several state agencies sent out warning letters to employees, setting December 12 as the deadline when the agency would issue 15-day termination notices.

By mid-December, most employees had relented and joined the union to keep their jobs, but a few stood up against the union on principle.

Laurie Bell, a 13-year tax specialist with the Employment Security Department, is one of them.

“I believe unions once might have served a purpose, but I don’t see where unions are needed these days,” Bell said. Every other non-management employee in her office joined the union unwillingly, according to Bell. They joined only to save their jobs, she said.

Union Workers Rewarded

During the 2005 session, the Washington legislature funded the collective bargaining agreements, including a 3.2 percent salary increase for state workers. The legislature took the highly criticized step of delaying the raise for two months for all non-union workers, claiming it was a cost-savings measure.

When the state’s Department of Personnel revealed the cost of implementing the two-tier pay system would be $8 million, offsetting any meaningful savings, ranking Democrat budget writers admitted the pay delay was intended to reward union employees.

Ironically, despite the two-month delay, many employees in non-union agencies finished the year with more take-home pay than unionized employees because they were not required to pay union dues.

The raise union workers received was eaten up by the new requirement to pay union dues, set at 1.37 percent of salary, and increased health and pension contributions.

Most Join Reluctantly

“This raises an interesting question: Who really benefits from union representation?” said Ryan Bedford of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Labor Policy Center.

The average union employee will pay $564 annually in dues, and unions will collect more than $30 million in 2006–effectively doubling their membership and income.

“This multi-million-dollar windfall is only possible because employees have to pay dues to keep their jobs,” said Bedford, citing an informal survey of 1,700 state workers. Sixty-nine percent said they joined their union only to avoid termination.

“Pro-labor elected officials, who authorized this political payback program, will also benefit from the union’s monopoly in years to come,” said Bedford, who pointed out Washington state unions gave more than $882,000 to Democratic Party legislative candidates in 2004.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) received more than $72,000 in union contributions during her 2004 gubernatorial campaign. After two vote recounts, Gregoire prevailed over Republican challenger Dino Ross by 133 votes. Unions underwrote her final recount effort with $720,000 in contributions.

“Public-sector unions could become a millstone around the state’s neck,” said Bedford. “Union interests will dictate increased spending and inefficiency, resulting in more dues-paying employees, who can then fund increased union political activity.”

Michael Reitz ([email protected]) is director of the Labor Policy Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy research organization based in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s poll of state workers is available online at http://www.effwa.org/main/article.php?article_id=1237&number=56.

More information on public-sector union activities and the attitudes of state workers can be found at the Web sites of Fed-Up Employees, http://www.wastatefedup.com; Free Conscience, http://www.freeconscience.org; and the EFF Labor Policy Center, http://www.effwa.org/labor.