By Michelle Dupler
Preliminary election results from the November general election could quash one group’s hopes to rewrite Washington law to join the ranks of right-to-work states.
Right-to-work policies aim to prohibit the practice of requiring all employees in a union workplace to pay union dues, regardless of whether they want to be part of the union or agree with its goals.
The conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center had hopes of bringing a bill to the Legislature in the coming 2018 session that would add Washington the ranks of states that have adopted right-to-work laws.
But with Democrat Manka Dhingra leading Republican opponent Jinyoung Lee Englund with 55 percent to 45 percent of the preliminary vote in the 45th District Senate race on Nov. 13, the balance of power in the Washington Senate appears about to flip.
Republicans currently hold a one-vote majority in the Senate because of a surprise coalition formed in late 2012 with two Democratic senators that gave the then-minority party sway over budget talks, and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the position of Senate leader.
The majority coalition has held since then, with Republicans subsequently picking up one seat in the Senate and retaining one Democratic senator in the coalition.
But, according to the Seattle Times, when Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, died of lung cancer in late 2016, that led to a hotly contested election this year to determine the balance of power in the Senate, and potentially return one-party control of the state to Democrats, who also hold the Governor’s Mansion and a majority in the House.
Erin Shannon, Washington Policy Center’s small business and labor reform director, told the Journal of Business prior to the election that she and other right-to-work proponents would be carefully watching the outcome of the 45th District Senate race to gauge prospects of potential legislation.
“Everyone is waiting to see how it shakes out,” Shannon said.
Most importantly, with Democrats in control of the Senate, a new chair would be appointed to the committee that oversees labor laws. Committee chairs control whether a bill gets a public hearing — a crucial initial step in the process toward becoming law — and can kill bills they don’t like.
Shannon said the current chair of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee — Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane — has been a champion of policies such as right-to-work. However, a new chair might not be so amenable.
“The person chairing the committee could change,” she said.
Right-to-work laws have been a topic of national conversation in recent years as 28 states — usually with Republican majorities — have moved to adopt them.
Proponents of the laws say they’re aimed at giving workers the right to opt out of financially supporting organizations they don’t philosophically or politically support, while opponents say the laws that have now been adopted in 28 states are designed for union-busting, not worker rights.
Patrick Connor, Washington state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the small business owners who make up his organization’s membership tend to believe that it’s fundamentally unfair for a worker to have to pay a fee to join an organization they may not want to join or to be employed at a union shop.
“Generally, our members don’t believe someone else should collect a fee in order for a worker to be on the job,” Connor said. “There is also some concern that these days labor unions and labor laws that protect them have made it difficult for workers who disagree with a union’s political stances to opt out of funding those political campaigns.”
Connor argued that the millions of dollars that unions are able to provide to support ballot measures such as Initiative 1433 in 2016, raising the minimum wage and implementing paid sick leave requirements, can be lopsided in comparison to groups that might oppose such initiatives, leaving taxpayers getting biased information.
“When one side is bombarding the electorate and other side doesn’t have the same resources and ability hard to say an open and honest and fair debate,” Connor said.
Matthew Wilkes, a Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 598 PAC and Central Labor Council delegate, disputed Connor’s reasoning. Wilkes noted that union dues are used to support activities related to workers’ job, and contributions to a union’s political action committees — the arms that fund campaigns — are voluntary.
“It is my choice as to whether or not I will pay into the committee whose only focus is supporting the people who have labor’s best interest at hand. We do not look at social issues, but look at our work in the future, protecting our standards of living, protecting our safety and keeping our work local,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes said when a union is bargaining on behalf of employees at a workplace, all of the workers reap the rewards of the union’s efforts.
“Unions are not perfect in everyone’s eyes, like most places, but in most cases do provide higher wages, benefits and dignity at work, fair discipline procedures and more for everyone involved in the union — and that costs money,” Wilkes said. “I guess the flip side would be working for a business where I am not part of a union, doing the work that makes the profits for them, and then having them lobby for legislation that drives down the minimum wages and gets rid of pensions. I would have more of a problem with those positions than paying a small fee to a group that keeps my life and future in mind.”
Without union dues, unions would have less money to provide professional training and development for workers — an activity for which Local 598 spends about $2.5 million annually, he said.
Shannon said Washington Policy Center would prefer to see member-only contracts and agreements that allow unions to bargain on behalf of the people who want to be their members, and that allow employees who opt out of union representation to negotiate directly with employers on their own behalf.
“If a collective bargaining agreement is beneficial, the union can prove that and people will want to join,” Shannon said.
She said companies are showing a preference for states adopting right-to-work policies, such as Boeing, opting to move some of its operations from Washington to South Carolina.
“A right-to-work environment provides a great boost for the manufacturing industry,” she said. “It creates a more pro-business environment, and CEOs value that predictability.”
Wilkes said states with right-to-work laws also tend to have weaker unions, which drives down wages for workers and correlates to more dangerous working conditions.
“The Economic Policy Institute states that workers in right-to-work states make less money — and that’s all workers, not just union employees,” he said. “Also, a study on job safety put out by the University of Michigan shows that on-the-job fatalities can be up to 40 percent higher in right-to-work states. It is my view that these are two of the most important aspects of unions: higher wages and job safety. Right-to-work diminishes the ability to fight for those items.”
Shannon disagreed, citing an example from Nevada, where she said one of the nation’s largest unions — the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union — thrives despite a right-to-work law.
“If unions just change their thinking and their business model, right-to-work does not have to cripple a union. It actually would strengthen unions because it would force them to become responsive to their members,” Shannon said.
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