Washington Policy Center to expand, focus on labor issues

The Washington Policy Center (WPC) will open a new center on labor and worker issues at the beginning of 2018. Director Erin Shannon says the center will allow for increased research about issues including unions and policies affecting workers. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

The Washington Policy Center (WPC) has announced it will expand its research at the start of 2018, opening a center to focus on labor issues. While a name for the center has yet to be decided, it will focus on labor reforms and offering workers more choice when it comes to union representation.

Erin Shannon, Director for the Center for Small Business, will head the new operation. Over the past several years, she has worked on a variety of labor-related issues including minimum wage, paid sick leave and restrictive scheduling. Shannon said the new center would work to better inform policymakers and stakeholders on those topics, as currently there is a lack of research and data.

“Unions exert a lot of influence in policy-making in our state,” she said. “We often find organized labor is the common denominator to the type of free market solutions that we are recommending Washington state needs.”

The problem is that Washington lacks a right to work law, she said, which causes forced unionization and collection of union dues, which in turn often leads to large sums of money used to elect labor-friendly candidates.

Washingtonians are not forced to join a union, but must pay into the cost of representation if their workplace decides to unionize, because unions play a large role in negotiating wages and benefits.

A right to work law would give workers the freedom to choose, Shannon said. “It would ultimately benefit unions because they would become stronger and focus on the needs and proving their value to workers, and workers would be happy to pay those dues for worker representation.”

If a workplace chooses to unionize, Shannon said WPC feels those workers shouldn’t be forced to join unless they want to.

“We have no problem with organized labor to support candidates, but when done on the backs of workers forced to pay labor dues or agency dues, then I think that is a real problem,” she said.

Shannon’s goal as director of the new center is to conduct research projects and studies to provide information to counter the “union busting” message, that is, the “knee-jerk” reaction to anyone looking into changing how unions form or operate in the state. She added that the focus of the center would be on the balance of power in Washington state between unions and businesses, which would include giving workers the choice whether they want to pay unions for representation.

“No business organization is allowed to forcibly collect agency fees or dues. When you have labor unions doing that, it creates an unlevel playing field. Our goal is to improve worker rights, a choice everyone should have.”

Over the years, Shannon said she has noticed the aggressive tone some labor groups take to push polices, which often includes carve-out exemptions for themselves.

This was the case for a proposed scheduling law in Seattle in 2016, which would require food and retail businesses to give advanced written notice of scheduled hours and “predictability pay” penalties if the schedule was changed after being posted. Employees covered under collective bargaining agreements would be exempt from these requirements, effectively exempting unions. The law took effect July 1, 2017.

“If it was about helping workers, they wouldn’t carve out exemptions for the laws they are pushing on someone else,” she added.

Shannon said the center will also cover topics such as union recertification or prevailing wages. WPC would like to see union recertification required every couple of years, where workers would have the opportunity to vote on whether they want a union to continue representing them, if they would like a different union or if they would rather have none at all.

The current process is often too complicated to follow through with an official decertification election, according to Shannon. In some cases, those votes took place decades ago.

“We don’t have a lot of data or research in our state on those types of labor issues, and we think the time is definitely past due,” Shannon said.

The center is set to open on January 1.

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