WA Legislature passes union dues political spending measure

Associated Press Writer/The Columbian

April 13, 2007

Olympia, WA - The Washington Legislature passed a bill Friday to allow labor unions to spend nonmembers' bargaining fees on political causes without first getting their permission, over the objections of opponents who said it was a clear attempt to circumvent a pending ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The measure, approved by the House last month, passed the Senate 29-20 and now heads to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who as attorney general in 2000 initiated the case that is now before the court. Three Democrats voted against the measure: Sens. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.

Gregoire's spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong, said the governor still needed to review the measure before deciding whether to sign it.

Supporters said the bill simply clarifies accounting rules and has nothing to do with the case before the nation's high court concerning the Washington Education Association.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said nonunion members have always had, and would still maintain, the right to object and get a rebate.

"Those who don't object still have further protection," she said. "The bill helps them. It does not take away any nonmember, nonagency fees rights."

The law in question regulates how unions can spend fees paid by workers who don't join the bargaining group. Those workers can be charged "agency fees" by the union to help pay for labor negotiations that affect them, but can't be forced to pay for the union's political activism.

In the WEA, nonmembers who don't support union politics can ask for a partial refund of those fees. Workers who don't respond to the refund offer pay the full fee.

The bill deals with commingling of funds. It says that when labor organizations make political campaign contributions, they are not considered to be using agency shop fees when the organization's general treasury has enough money to cover the contributions from other revenue sources.

"This will potentially stop new litigation and protect the rights of thousands of nonmember union members, but also protect the rights of union members," Kohl-Welles said. "It provides clarification."

But opponents said that unless a nonmember specifically asks for a refund, because of the commingling of the funds they can't be absolutely certain their money doesn't go to causes they don't support.

"What's at stake here is the First Amendment rights of our teachers," said Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake.

Initiative 134, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in 1992, requires unions to get a yes-or-no reply from each nonmember before spending any portion of their fees on politics.

But that provision was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which said forcing unions to get permission from each nonmember would be an unconstitutional burden on the unions' free speech rights.

The WEA, the state's largest teachers' union, was sued by the state in 2000 and accused of violating the campaign finance law.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank. The foundation and the WEA have battled repeatedly over the years about nonmember fees.

"The bill uses an accounting gimmick to gut the law of its effect - all but eliminating the requirement on unions to get permission before spending nonmember dues on politics," said Evergreen labor policy director Mike Reitz in a written statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in January on an appeal of a state Supreme Court ruling that said the WEA did not have to get special permission to spend nonmembers' union fees on politics. Several justices indicated they were inclined to reverse the state court and uphold Initiative 134.

The narrow issue before the justices is whether employees must opt in, or affirmatively consent, to having some of their money used in election campaigns.

The bill passed Friday includes an "emergency clause," which means if signed into law, it would take effect immediately and could not be overturned by a voter referendum.

Several Republican amendments, including one that would have removed the emergency clause, were rejected on the Senate floor.

"I don't see the emergency except to avoid the Supreme Court decision," said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside.

But Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said that lawmakers were not trying to sidestep the courts.

"If the court upholds the current statute, it also upholds what we're doing," she said. "If the court strikes down the law, this law would be struck down as well."


The union fees measure is House Bill 2079.


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