Wednesday’s landmark 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME has implications for Washington state. While its impact will be more limited than public employee unions fear and their critics hope, it will politically rebalance the state’s Eastern and Western halves.
The court overturned a 40-year-old precedent and the laws of 22 states, including Washington, ruling that “agency fees” – the monies workers must pay unions even if they refuse to join them – are unconstitutional violations of free speech in the government context. (The decision doesn’t touch private-sector unions.) Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion held that the collection of agency fees “violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”
Public unions are crying foul. They argue that the case was engineered by a vast corporate conspiracy spearheaded by the Koch brothers that will “destroy” government worker unions.
Although Washington state’s public unions will feel the decision’s effects more acutely than most others, it will hardly decimate them. With 52 percent of its public workforce belonging to unions, Washington has one of the most heavily unionized government workforces in the nation. It has also been one of the states where, contrary to trends elsewhere, public unions have been growing in recent years.
In 2002, after the Democrats gained full control of the Legislature, all state workers were required to join unions or pay them agency fees as a condition of employment. Prior to then, those obligations had only applied, since the 1960s, to teachers and municipal employees. The number of unionized public employees shot up by nearly 10 percent.
Public unions began to flex new political muscle. With more state employees paying dues, the amount of union dollars flowing into the coffers of Democrats running in state elections doubled. In 2004, Christine Gregoire won the governorship after the state’s AFSCME affiliate gave $250,000 to help pay for the recount that handed her the election by 129 votes. In office, Gregoire negotiated contracts with the unions that resulted in historic salary increases for thousands of state employees. Such munificence paid off. In 2008, Gregoire won re-election by 194,614 votes.
Current Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign coffers have profited handsomely over his career from a close alliance with public employee unions. In February, Gov. Inslee also signed Senate Bill 6199, aimed at assisting SEIU get around the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Harris v. Quinn, which inhibited unions from collecting dues and agency fees from home health care workers under the state’s Medicaid program. The union had prioritized such legislation.
The Janus decision will make such cozy relationships harder to achieve. By requiring public workers to either join the union or pay them anyway, most workers just joined the union. That’s why government unions have more members in states like Washington than in states like Florida. Without the force of law, unions will have to work harder to win and retain members. Washington’s public unions will likely lose some members. And that means their bank accounts will take a hit.
Four factors will, however, soften the blow of losing agency fees for public unions. One, Washington’s public unions are starting from an all-time high level of union penetration into state and local government. Two, there are likely to be legislative efforts to strengthen public union rights. New York and New Jersey recently passed laws that facilitate union organizing by requiring new employees to meet with unions.
Three, public unions in Washington have been on notice that agency fees were in legal jeopardy and have been vigorously organizing to retain their members. Four, public unions can maintain their political clout by increasing the dues paid by those who remain union members.
Insofar as the Janus decision weakens the political power of Washington’s public unions, which are concentrated in the state’s Western half, it will rebalance the state’s politics in favor of the Eastern half. But both East and West should bear in mind that Janus’ effect will be far from revolutionary.
Daniel DiSalvo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an associate professor of political science at the City College of New York-CUNY, and the author of “Government Against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.