If a worker pays no dues, why get union benefits?

Anti-union groups’ short-sighted activism raises questions of fairness.

The Olympian editorial board

The “right-to-work movement” in this country protests a bit too much. Ultimately the movement’s fight is against all unions.

That is pretty short-sighted thinking. There is a correlation historically between the weakening of labor unions in the U.S. economy and the widening of income inequality. Unions provide a check against cavalier management, and they support a wage floor that makes it more likely that wages keep up with inflation.

Nonetheless, the fight against labor organizing continues. And the current battle against public-sector unions is coming to a head at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case known as Janus vs. AFSCME in the state of Illinois.

The strict legal issues deal with whether public sector workers who benefit from pay contracts, but opt out of membership, should have to pay “agency fees” to the unions that negotiated their compensation contracts. The argument for opting out is workers have a right of free association.

Under the law as it is applied today, workers can opt out of paying dues if they opt out of belonging to a union, but they remain on the hook for their so-called fair-share of costs for bargaining. That should not be an issue, but it is the target for interests angling to upend the law.

The opt-in or opt-out argument is a fair one — workers should be given a chance to make an informed decision.

But the attempt to dangle a free ride as an incentive for workers to opt out is not fair.

Of course the end game here is to undermine membership in unions. Ultimately, this might weaken labor groups as players in the crafting or negotiating of policies that govern working conditions. As importantly, a victory over the unions might defang their role in electoral politics.

So far, the public in Washington has supported the role of public — sector unions in state and local government.

There is no question that employee pay has risen as a result of unionization. There were exceptions — such as when Washington’s state-worker unions agreed to temporary pay cuts during the depth of the Great Recession.

The Washington Federation of State Employees’ executive leader, Greg Devereux, recently told The Olympian’s and News Tribune’s reporter Walker Orenstein that WFSE has grown its membership from about 20,000 when he joined the organization in the 1994 to more than 43,000 represented workers today. The latter includes nearly 36,000 dues payers.

The percentage of workers opting out of paying dues is less than 10 percent and shrinking, according to WFSE.

However the Supreme Court sorts out this case, it’s worth asking: If workers can opt out of paying a share of contract bargaining costs, should they also opt out of benefits?

Should state employees opting out be entitled to health-insurance benefits at the rate they receive them — with taxpayers picking up 85 percent of premiums? Or should they pay a higher percentage? Should opting-out employees receive cost of living raises at the same level as those who pay dues or agency fees?

It’s easy to imagine legal roadblocks to creating such a two-tier system of pay and benefits.

We ask this question only partly in jest. If a worker’s right of free speech or free association is interfered with by requiring the agency-fee payment, should there morally be any right for the worker to cash in on benefits he or she isn’t paying for?

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