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The Fate of the Union 

SEIU local 775NW has major influence in Washington — but could a recent Supreme Court ruling change that?

click to enlarge Home-care aide Susie Young - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
  • Young Kwak photo
  • Home-care aide Susie Young

For 12 years, home-care aide Susie Young has visited a developmentally disabled man in a home in Spokane. She's made him meals, kept track of his medical and skin conditions, helped him shower and has given him gentle reminders to brush his teeth and put on his clothes.

"Have you had a shower today?" Young says she asks him. "What do you need to do today to start your day?"

As an executive board member of the Healthcare 775NW local of the massive Service Employees International Union, she fights for the wages, benefits and regulations of not only home-care workers who work for an agency like herself, but more than 26,000 individual providers.

On June 30, a Supreme Court decision put the ability of that union to charge fees to those individual workers into question.

In Harris v. Quinn, an Illinois mother getting paid with Medicaid dollars to care for her disabled son sued to stop an "agency fee" from being deducted from her paycheck and given to the local SEIU, even though she wasn't a member of that union. In "right to work" states like Idaho, such fees are illegal. But in states like Illinois and Washington, they're a major piece of keeping unions financially sound.

While the Supreme Court's conservative wing could have gutted unions entirely — stripping them of much of their financial power — the decision was limited to "partial public employees." In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court determined that Illinois compelling those employees to pay union dues was a violation of the First Amendment.

The end of the legal battle in Illinois is just the beginning of legal questions for Washington state and its unions.

Young has been a Washington state home-health worker for 25 years. At first, she says, she didn't think she needed a union. She says the agency showed her black-and-white anti-union films.

"My attitude was that, 'I will take good care of my clients and my agency will take good care of me,'" Young says. But she soon learned that even getting boxes of gloves for working with HIV-positive patients was a battle. She pushed her agency for raises and benefits; without union backing, she couldn't get either.

But in 2001, Initiative 775 passed with nearly 63 percent of the vote, allowing even individual home-health-care providers to unionize. By 2002, Young says, they voted overwhelmingly to do just that, forming SEIU local 775NW, representing both individual and agency workers.

It isn't the only Washington state union potentially impacted by the recent Supreme Court decision — the unions for home child-care providers and language access providers could be impacted as well — but it's certainly the biggest. Today, 775NW is one of the state's most potent political forces. Last year, it collected nearly $20 million in union dues and spent nearly $170,000 in support of SeaTac's initiative to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Supreme Court decision threatens that power.

"The union probably would have fewer members if the union isn't going to force people to pay dues," says Maxford Nelsen, labor policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation. If any group would sue to ensure the Harris ruling is applied to Washington state, it's the conservative Freedom Foundation. They've won Supreme Court arguments against unions before — their Davenport v. Washington case against the Washington Education Association was cited in Chief Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion.

In Washington, 3.2 percent of home health-care workers' wages are redirected to SEIU union dues. On a relatively meager $15,900 salary for a home health-care worker working 120 hours a month, that's more than $500 annually. Home health aides, however, can object to the union's political lobbying efforts and pay a lesser amount. "Of 44,000 members, we have a very, very small number that pay that [lesser] amount," says Jackson Holtz, spokesman for 775NW.

The question is whether they should have to pay anything at all.

For union critics, it's an issue of freedom: Why should workers have to shell out money for a union they don't even support? "This ruling represents a victory for parents caring for children with developmental disabilities and similarly compensated workers, who have been forced to pay union dues because they receive payments administered by the state," the conservative Washington Policy Center proclaimed in a press release.

But for unions, the issue is simple fairness. They lambaste workers who take advantage of union-obtained wage and benefit increases without paying dues as "free-riders."

SEIU argues that the Illinois decision shouldn't apply in Washington — that the SEIU local in Washington is vastly different from the one in Illinois. "We have a far more robust collective bargaining model. Workers have been able to win a lot of benefits," Holtz says. "In Illinois, the wage scale is enshrined in legislation."

The Freedom Foundation dismisses this distinction. The ruling applied to partial public employees, Nelsen says, and home-care aides are clearly partial public employees.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is still analyzing the effect of the ruling on the state's unions. Until he weighs in, both sides have been lobbying Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee.

"I don't want to talk about the details of our negotiations of any elected officials... that's a strategic part of our work," says Holtz. "The question is, what does the state of Washington want to do to ensure that vulnerable adults can live independently and with dignity in their homes and communities?"

That behind-the-scenes maneuvering has raised eyebrows from the unions' conservative critics, who note that unions are big campaign backers of Democrats.

Young, for her part, remains hopeful that even if the decision applies to her union, union workers will continue paying their dues. She says it's worth it. "Between 2004 and 2007, we improved our wages by 40 percent," Young says. During the recession, she says, the union fought against legislative attempts to cut wages and benefits.

Most important, she says, the union is there to share workers' stories with the legislature. "Without SEIU, I'd still be working behind closed doors." Young says. "We had no voice. We felt invisible." ♦

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