Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

A fight over the role of unions erupts in Olympia

State Democrats push labor union-friendly bills while Republicans cry foul play.

While state Democrats push a set of labor-union backed bills, some Republicans are decrying the effort as special-interest politics.

The Republicans object to two bills. The first, SB 6199, would restructure how the state Department of Social and Human Services works with tens of thousands of home health care workers by contracting them under a private vendor. The bill would also create an administrative board made up of agency employees, union representatives, and staff from the governor’s office, which would set the rate paid to the contractor, and, thus, the workers.

The legislation was requested by the Social and Human Services Department, which argues that it will simplify its relationship with home-health care workers, remove time spent on administrative paperwork, and improve patient care.

Another bill some Republicans dislike, SB 6079, would exempt public employees from public disclosure requests. Senate Democrats and Democratic Governor Jay Inslee claim that the bill aims to protect the privacy of public employees from harassment or identity theft.

However, Senate Republicans argue that both bills were requested by SEIU 775 — a labor union representing around 30,000 home-health care workers in Washington. They say the requested policy changes are an effort by the union to maintain its membership base in the face of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated laws requiring public employees to pay union fees even if they are not a member.

The 2014 ruling — resulting from the controversial Harris v. Quinn case — stated that mandatory union fees imposed on non-members violate First Amendment rights.

Republican critics argue that SB 6199 is a way for the union to get around the court mandate by getting the healthcare workers classified as technically privately employed, and therefore, still required to pay union fees.

They also characterize SB 6079 as a way to prevent the conservative Olympia-based Freedom Foundation think tank from informing home health care workers of their rights under the 2014 court ruling—a continuation of a years-long fight between SEIU 775 and the Freedom Foundation over access to workers for canvassing purposes.

Following the 2014 court ruling, the Freedom Foundation sued SEIU 775 for the contact information of its members to inform them of their right not to pay fees. The union responded by fielding a ballot initiative in 2016 to change state law to shield home-care providers’ personal information from public disclosure. The initiative passed 70 to 30 percent.

“I think this is interest group pressure,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R–Auburn, in a phone interview. He also said that SB 6199, the measure that would put union officials on a board to serve as the state’s hiring contractor for home health workers, was “crafted specifically in response to what the union asked for.”

In a newsletter, Sen. John Braun, R–Centralia, thrashed SB 6199 as “the most disingenuous and cynical bill in Olympia.”

In addition to several Democrats, two Republicans, Sen. Mark Miloscia, R–Federal Way, and Sen. Phil Fortunato, R–Auburn, signed on to SB 6199 as co-sponsors.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling later this year in another case—Janus v. AFSCME—dealing with mandatory union fees. The court will decide if public employees are required to pay dues regardless of their membership status. Republicans have argued that this coming ruling is also a factor in the Democrats’ effort to move both bills.

SEIU 775 is a major financial contributor to the state Democratic party, donating thousands to Democratic candidates in recent years, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Fortunato, have received recent donations from the union as well.

Last week, Senate Republicans circulated a 2014 briefing memo authored by staff at the state Office of Financial Management for Gov. Jay Inslee that stated that SEIU President David Rolf had requested statutory and agency policy changes in response to the Harris v. Quinn case — including contracting with a third-party to make home healthcare providers private employees — as evidence that the bill was getting shepherded along at the request of labor interests.

A spokesperson for the Office of Financial Management confirmed the authenticity of the memo, writing in an email that the memo “speaks for itself in outlining various requests from the union.”

Inslee’s Chief of Staff, David Postman, told the Seattle Times that the governor’s office discussed ideas about the bill with SEIU 775 representatives, and acknowledged that the bill benefits both the interests of the union and home health care workers.

Both bills were brought up for a floor vote late in the evening on Feb. 7, and floor debate on the legislation lasted until 1 a.m. with Republicans levying fierce criticism.

“It’s being run in the dark of the night for a purpose,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R–Spokane, at the Feb. 7 floor debate. He contended that the legislation is “really an attempt to subvert recent Supreme Court decisions.”

The two bills were held until Saturday, Feb. 10, where they passed after passionate floor testimony.

Leading up to the Feb. 10 vote, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R–Ferndale, said, “If the unions can’t go out and convince those people to be members, then maybe they aren’t offering a good product.”

“This truly is the ugly underbelly of politics,” he added.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D–Vancouver, the sponsor of SB 6199, said at the Feb. 10 floor vote that the legislation would improve the quality of care for patients and that it was requested of her by the Department of Human and Social Services. She also called her Republican colleagues’ criticisms of unions “offensive.”

The sponsor of SB 6079, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D–Bellevue, said on Feb. 10 that her bill to exempt public employee birthdays from disclosure was necessary to protect their personal information from “cyber thieves” before it was voted off the floor.

An SEIU 775 spokesperson directed requests for comment to the Department of Social and Human Services.

Gov. Jay Inslee is openly supportive of the bill to exempt public employee birthdates from disclosure. “We think it is appropriate to protect them because these particular employees are the ones who are at risk of having their privacy violated. There has been a clear, concerted effort to do that. It’s been ongoing. It’s been funded by millions of dollars that are trying to reduce the ability of working people to have family wage jobs and have their organizational rights protected,” he said, referring to the Freedom Foundation. “I think this is the right approach.”

Director of Labor Policy at the Freedom Foundation, Maxford Nelson, said that the new Democratic majority has emboldened labor unions to intensely lobby state Democrats to push their agenda.

“I think labor unions are looking to take as much action as possible in this session that will help them preserve their cash flow and membership,” Nelsen said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen SEIU 775 work very closely with Gov. Inslee’s administration to circumnavigate that court decision and implement every scheme they can think of to keep those caregivers paying dues—whether they like it or not.”

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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