Right Time For Right To Work Could Be Coming To Washington State

Freedom to choose on dues-paying is the issue for workers in "union shops." For employers, the concerns are business climate, costs, and worker training.

Right Time For Right To Work Could Be Coming To Washington State
Right To Work laws can induce more competition in pricing of taxpayer-funded capital projects and consumer goods. Here, workers build Seattle's downtown library. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.

If the national trend is any indication Washington could eventually allow public and private sector employees a choice on whether to pay union dues. It’s called Right To Work. Some Washington state policy experts believe Right To Work for both public and private sector workers would grow jobs and and boost economic growth. Opponents say all workers represented in unions should continue to mandatorily pay dues to strengthen collective bargaining on salaries, benefits and working conditions.

The U.S. Supreme Court came to an impasse last month on the matter regarding public employee unions. A deadlocked vote in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association challenge to mandatory dues-paying means that practice for now will hold in public sector unions. But don’t expect any action on private sector Right To Work in Washington until the stars are aligned in the legislature, and residents get more acquainted with the concept.

Currently Washington is at an all-time low in terms of union membership. Union membership in the state was at its peak in 1993 when it averaged 23.8 percent of workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 union members accounted for 16.8 percent of wage and salary workers in Washington.

Striking Contrast Between Public And Private Sectors

Around 12 percent of workers in the private sector are union members compared to 57 percent in public sector.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21 is the largest private sector union in the state, with 44,000 members in grocery store, retail, health care and other industry. The Washington Education Association is the largest public school union in the state with 85,000 members.

UW Debate Highlights Right To Work

Whether the state legislature again broaches Right To Work probably depends on whether or not pro-growth forces gain a majority in the State House in November’s elections. But the issue is not far from the surface now.

A debate at the University of Washington Wednesday hosted by the Washington Policy Center (WPC) highlighted the growing awareness by many in the state of Right To Work laws.

Right To Work advocates on the panel included Washington State Senate Labor Committee Chair Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) and Executive Director of the Workers Rights Alliance Mike LaFave. Defending current state law was Western Washington University professor Bill Lyne, president of the United Faculty of Washington State (UFWS). The UFWS represents the faculty at Eastern, Western and Central Washington University, as well as Evergreen State College.

Opponents of Right To Work laws like Lyne see them as striking at the heart of a union’s ability to survive but proponents say that’s overstating things.

Baumgartner and LaFave argued that Right To Work measures are neither pro-union nor anti-union, but rather, are focused on freedom to choose. Policy experts also see the approach as creating better incentives for union members, union leaders and the businesses they deal with.

The issue surfaced as a flashpoint in Washington state in 2011 when Boeing decided to establish a second 787 Dreamliner assembly line in the Right To Work state of South Carolina where the company’s roots trace to 2004. Factors in the move included “top-notch infrastructure, a business-friendly climate and a skilled workforce,” according to South Carolina officials. The National Labor Relations Board filed suit to stop the move, but dropped the action later in the year after a new contract agreement between the company and unionized Seattle-region Boeing machinists which included a provision for building the 737 Max in Renton.

Half Of U.S. States Have Right To Work

Of the 50 states, 25 have passed Right To Work laws.

Where they are not in effect, unions are able to take membership dues for granted, according to Maxford Nelsen, Director of Labor Policy at the Freedom Foundation.

“It creates a dynamic where the union is not accountable to its members,” he said.

State AG’s Office Opposes Right To Work

Solicitor General Noah Purcell in the Washington state Attorney General’s Office voiced his support of required membership dues. Attorney General Bob Ferguson also signed a friend-to-the-court brief written for the Friedrichs case by the state of New York, which has similar labor laws.

Recent efforts to get state law changed in the legislature have had trouble getting off the ground. In 2013 Baumgartner introduced SB 5935, which would have made Washington a right-to-work state if workers’ compensation costs continued to increase. The bill didn’t even manage to get a committee hearing. The House Labor and Workforce Development Chair Mike Sells (D-38) is a strong opponent of such efforts.

Last year Initiative 1395 would have created a right to work law but it didn’t make the November ballot.

During the 2016 legislative session a Senate bill would have required public sector union members to vote on whether to keep the exiting union or create a new one. It got out of the Ways and Means Committee but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Baumgartner: It’s More Likely ‘When’, Not ‘If’

Baumgartner argued during Wednesday’s debate that the recent change in previous union stronghold states like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin is proof that employees want the freedom of choice. Since the state’s Right To Work law took effect in March 2013, unemployment in Michigan has dropped from 415,000 to 232,000 last month.

Despite failed attempts to get such a law implemented in Washington, Baumgartner believes the “libertarian bent” of voters on many issues in the state will lead to a similar law here in the future.

Before that happens either the makeup of the legislature needs to change or the public needs to become more educated about what it actually means to be a right to work state.

That’s according to Erin Shannon, director at WPC’s Center for Small Business.

Because it’s a fairly new topic for Washington “most people don’t know what right to work means,” she said. However, once they do learn, “they overwhelmingly support the idea,” she added.

In the meantime, it can be difficult to measure the economic costs or impacts of current labor laws regarding private sector union membership.

Lyne claimed during the debate that right to work results in lower employee wages, while LaFave countered that this does not fully take into account lower costs of living differences between states.

Big Boost In Employment Seen Under Right To Work

A 2015 WPC study concluded that “under right-to-work, Washington state after five years would have almost 120,000 more people working, with more than 13,100 in increased manufacturing employment.”

WPC Vice President for Research Paul Guppy said that the industries in the state most impacted by the lack of a right to work law in the state are small to mid-level manufacturing and trucking companies with 60-200 employees. The possible threat of a union strike can make employers cautious in areas where they need flexibility.

Under right to work “what you would have is more creativity and innovation in the economy particularly in the private sector,” he said. “It’s just removing a lot of obstacles to hiring people and getting started or expanding your business.”

It would also “behoove them (unions) to avoid issues that are divisive and unrelated” to their workers, said Nelsen.

Potential labor complications can also dissuade businesses from opening up in states, Guppy said. The last thing they want to deal with when they first think of starting a business is union strikes.

For example, Tesla opened its gigafactory in Nevada, a Right To Work state.

One Arrow In The Quiver; Not A Silver Bullet

Yet Right To Work advocates admit it’s not a panacea but just one variable that contributes to a positive business climate.

In some ways Right To Work laws might even benefit unions by giving them more legitimacy when they bargain. For example, Nevada is home to one of the fastest growing private sector local unions in the United States, Culinary Union Local 226. Since 1987 membership has increased from 18,000 to around 57,000.

Because it is purely voluntary employers know during negotiations that union leaders’ demands accurately reflect that of union members, said Shannon.

Employer Alternatives On Unions Evident In “Merit Shops”

While worker freedoms to decline paying union dues are the issue in Right To Work, employer choice of union versus non-union labor is a related piece of the debate, particularly in the construction industry.

About two-thirds of the labor on all large scale construction projects in the Seattle area is union workers, as the Seattle Times reported last year. But the construction industry in Western Washington through the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington and the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington have long promoted “merit shops,” known elsewhere as “open shops.” These are workplaces which use a mixture of union and non-union workers on projects and there is no requirement workers belong to a union to get work.

According to an April 16 article in the Wall Street Journal, New York city construction firms are increasingly turning to open shops, which are estimated to lower costs by 20 to 30 percent.

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