In the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus ruling against requiring public employees to pay union dues, thousands of public employees in Washington state have left their unions. At the same time, legal fights continue over the ways in which unions have sought to obtain consent to deduct that money from employee paychecks.
According to the Freedom Foundation, Washington’s largest public sector union, the Washington State Labor Council, has seen a third of its members stop paying dues. In total, 30,000 Washington public employees have left their unions; with average annual dues of $800, that amounts to a loss of $24 million.
According to the Freedom Foundation, on the West Coast nearly 100,000 public sector employees have left a union since Janus, $142 million’s worth in annual dues.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there were 557,000 Washington public union members in 2020. That is a decrease of 92,000 since 2018 when total union membership was at its highest; that figure includes not just workers no longer paying dues but also employees who are no longer working in the public sector. Union members now account for 17.4 percent of the total Washington state workforce compared to 19.8 percent in 2020; its lowest percentage of the workforce was 16.8 percent in 2014.
However, BLS notes that due to the COVID-19 pandemic the data should be “should be interpreted with caution.”
The response among states to the loss of union members has been mixed. In California, the long-term SEIU Local 1000 president recently lost the election to Richard Louis Brown, who campaigned on ending state political activism while reducing union dues.
“That is definitely a positive when a union president says he doesn’t want to play politics in state government,” Freedom Foundation Communications Vice President Ashley Varner said.
Following the Janus decision, Washington state lawmakers enacted a variety of policies to protect unions from lawsuits by employees who seek to collect union fees paid prior to the ruling. Legislators have also passed bills providing public unions a variety of options to obtain consent from workers to deduct dues from their paychecks, while severely restricting how and when those workers can withdraw consent.
Last year the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of several University of Washington employees who have attempted to leave their union but continued to have dues deducted by their employer. A September ruling by the U.S. District Court for Western Washington ruled in favor of the union, though the decision has been appealed.
A separate ongoing lawsuit in the Walla Walla School District is also targeting the opt-out timeframe provision regarding public employee union membership. In an April decision a U.S. District Court judge also ruled in favor of the school union.
At the same time, public unions in Washington state have faced lawsuits by former members who say there have been incidents of forgery on membership consent forms. In 2019, SEIU 775 agreed to pay a Spokane homecare worker $28,000 in compensation and legal fees after it conceded that the signature on her consent form wasn’t hers. A similar lawsuit was filed last year against that union and was also settled out of court.
Most recently, the union settled a lawsuit in April for $17,180 with a homecare provider, though it admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
“We want every public employee in the country to know they can stop funding a political agenda they don’t support,” Freedom Foundation CEO Aaron Withe said in a statement.