Labor unions don't have to wither or die

Thousands of public employees in Washington state could be affected by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that let government workers opt out of paying union dues or fees.

And on Tuesday, the first payday for state workers since the high-court ruled in June, payroll departments are making sure that fees are no longer automatically deducted from checks of those who opted out of unions, according to Franklin Plaistowe of the state Office of Financial Management.

This is as it should be. The Janus ruling, decided in favor of an Illinois state worker by a narrow 5-to-4 margin, made it clear that unions now must obtain permission by an affirmative action of the worker to collect dues or fees.

Until the ruling, public-sector workers who opted out of joining a union were still on the hook for the costs of collective bargaining. Those costs were called “agency fees” and were less than the full cost of union dues.

Janus turned that on its head. It lets those who opt out of membership benefit from bargained pay raises and health benefits while also avoiding the costs borne by dues-paying members.

In this state, nearly 5,000 of the 44,000 workers represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees have opted out previously in one way or another, according to federation executive director Greg Devereux. WFSE is Washington’s largest state employee union.

Devereux said the fees were about 1.1 percent of pay; dues were closer to 1.5 percent.

By any measure, the Janus decision is a massive win for anti-union interests, which used First Amendment rights of association and speech to win this case.

Devereux said the ruling in effect turns the public sector into the equivalent of a "right-to-work" state where opting out is easier.

This means the Janus impacts could be large, but only if unions fail to show their workers that there is strength and benefit in numbers.

Though we are disappointed to see unions weakened, because there is a correlation between income and unionization, labor groups can fight back.

Devereux said his union has been preparing to do this by showing the benefit of unionization.

This could be a tall order. But facing up to the challenge could make public-sector unions more responsive to criticism from members thinking about opting out. That ultimately would be good for everyone.

If union membership actually grows, it would be a strong repudiation of those who don’t want to guarantee workers a voice in the workplace.

The union’s goal is to boost the percentage of eligible workers who join the union from about 84 percent today to 90 percent or more in the coming few years, Devereux says.

He noted that surveys and polls consistently show about a third of members are conservative or aligned with the GOP, so the unionization issue is not merely partisan.

Another way for unions to prove their value is deliver public services as cheaply and effectively as possible.