A long-running national campaign to undermine public-sector labor unions has some members of the Washington state Legislature scrambling to protect the dates of birth of public employees.
Unfortunately the proposed legislative action wrongly undermines the state Public Records Act and government accountability. Two wrongs don’t make a right and Senate Bill 6079 should be killed.
The measure is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Patty Kuderer of Bellevue, who wants to shield dates of birth to protect workers against potential harassment or stalking or identity theft. That is a noble goal, if the bill accomplished that without causing damage to the public interest. It doesn’t.
Dates of birth are important for government watchdogs and others doing background checks. A birth date can distinguish between similarly named individuals who work for government agencies and might be under suspicion of criminal or official misconduct. These individuals may include teachers or coaches in public schools or others in charge of vulnerable children or adults.
The underlying records fight is actually part of a years-long effort by The Freedom Foundation, a think tank based in Olympia that opposes labor unions. It wants to persuade members of the Service Employees International Union’s 775 NW – which represents home care workers who are not actually state employees – to quit the union and stop paying dues or fees.
The foundation has sought the dates of birth so it can track down mailing addresses and send promotional materials to the workers, ostensibly to advise them of their rights.
Public employees have long had the right to opt out of joining a union and avoid paying some dues. But a ruling in an Illinois case known as Harris vs. Quinn in 2014 opened the door to undermining the ability of public sector and quasi-public sector unions to collect “agency fees” in lieu of dues for non-members. These fees cover the cost of bargaining and are reasonable.
Public sector unions in this state fear a spread of the foundation’s tactics. Though many workers can see that union membership gives them bargaining power, the foundation wants workers to reconsider joining based on the potential ability to get pay benefits without paying dues or fees.
SEIU 775 NW has helped lift home-care workers’ pay, improve training and professionalize the home-care workforce in Washington. But, we disagree with the strategy Democratic lawmakers are taking to protect SEIU affiliates and other unions by using state employee privacy as a tool for fending off attacks.
One bill co-sponsor is Democratic Sen. Sam Hunt of Olympia, who chairs the Senate committee that approved SB 6079 last week on a party-line vote. He should reconsider his support and look for other ways to protect workers.
As fate would have it, the Court of Appeals blocked Freedom Foundation from getting access to the birth dates of workers. But the state Supreme Court could take up the case and rule differently.
In the meantime, disclosure provisions of the Public Records Act should be left alone.