On an early Friday morning at the Bates Center for Educational Leadership, Kari Van Nostran stood in front of about 60 teachers and other education professionals newly hired by Vancouver Public Schools with an invitation to join a “large family.”
As her audience snacked on trail mix and oranges, Van Nostran, the recently elected president of the Vancouver Education Association, made her pitch for why they should opt to join the union representing teachers and other non-administrative professionals. With the enthusiasm of a game show host, Van Nostran explained that along with advocating for better pay and benefits, the union would offer its members professional development and representation during disciplinary actions. She mentioned other benefits, such as deals on cellphone plans, travel and insurance.
“We take care of our own,” said Van Nostran. She noted that of the 1,663 employees the union represents, 99 percent are members. At the end of the presentation, Van Nostran asked audience members if they were ready for their sign-up forms and welcomed them to the family.
Scenes like this are increasingly important for the viability of organized labor across the country. In recent years, public-sector unions have faced anxious times as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of rulings upending decades of precedent that formed the underpinnings of organized labor.
In June of last year, the court issued its most recent ruling, Janus v. AFSCME, that had high stakes for both unions and their opponents. The case concerned whether public-sector unions could collect fees for collective bargaining activities from employees who aren’t members of the union and don’t pay dues.
Public-sector unions worried that the ruling would cut off a significant source of their funding, which in turn would mean fewer resources and staff to represent their members. With less to offer their regular members, unions worried they’d see an exodus of workers opting out entirely, diminishing the clout of organized labor in both the private and public sectors.
Union opponents saw the ruling’s potential to reduce the power of public-sector unions, which they’ve blamed for bloated government. With unions traditionally being a key constituency of the Democratic Party, the ruling also had the potential to shift the political balance in labor-friendly states like Washington.
A year after the Janus ruling, data suggests that those scenarios haven’t played out in Clark County or in Washington. Instead, the threat of the ruling has motivated to unions to engage their membership.
“I think it’s provided a helpful reminder of the value of member engagement and keeping ourselves relevant,” said Van Nostran.
But critics say that unions and their allies have relied on strong-armed tactics to retain members. They also say that other sources of data signal that unions representing state workers are on the decline. Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the free-market think tank Freedom Foundation, said that questions over how unions organize will continue to be battled in both courthouses and state houses.
“It’s far from being a settled issue,” he said.
What happened, by the numbers
Washington has one of the country’s most unionized workforces. A year after the Janus ruling, the Associated Press, analyzing federal data, found that states that allowed unions to collect fees from nonmembers saw their unionization rates drop only modestly or even rise. Washington, according to the analysis, saw its unionization rate rise by 4 percentage points.
Local governments in Clark County have had few, if any, employees who were assessed representation fees by unions. Data obtained by local governments in Clark County show that the rate of employees represented by unions has largely held steady. (The city of Washougal did not respond to a request for its data by deadline).
In the small cities, the percentage of employees represented by unions have barely shifted in the year following the Janus ruling. In Ridgefield, the number of nonrepresented employees rose by one after the ruling as the total budgeted employees increased from 44.5 to 48.75. But no employees dropped their membership. According to Jennifer Gorsuch, administrative services director for Camas, only a single employee has opted out of membership since Janus. But both Camas and Battle Ground saw their unionization rate rise by a percentage point after the Janus ruling.
“It did the inverse of what they were planning with Janus,” said Randall Friesen, secretary-treasurer of the Southwest Washington Labor Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate that represents 7,800 workers. He said that workers realized that opting out of financially supporting their union would just mean weaker representation.
But there are some signs that union support may be weakening.
At the city of Vancouver, 77 percent of its full-time employees were union, which dropped to 75 percent after the ruling. Requests for comment from the city of Vancouver and the local AFSCME affiliate were not returned by deadline.
For Clark County, the percentage of full-time union or guild employees rose from 68 to 69 percent. But Jeremy Hammrich, a Clark County human resources coordinator, said in an email that as of January, 24 employees had left the union. The number currently stands at 34.
In recent years, the Freedom Foundation has been waging a campaign to let government employees know they can opt-out and Nelsen said it’s been paying off. Nelsen said that federal sources of data are incomplete. But he said his group has been regularly requesting payroll data from the state showing that the number of dues-paying members for the Washington Federation of State Employees has dropped below 80 percent.
“The feedback has been positive,” he said of his group’s efforts. “Lots of (state workers) have been leaving. They didn’t know they could.”
Justine Lee, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, wouldn’t comment on its numbers, except to say the union represented 44,000 employees before Janus and now represents 45,000.
As Washington has overhauled how it funds education, the state’s politically influential teachers’ unions have had a particular interest in the outcome of Janus.
Van Nostran said that her union adopted more conservative budget projections in anticipation of Janus. She said that very few employees paid fees to the union in lieu of membership. When the district began hiring after the Janus decision almost all new hires opted for membership, she said.
“We wanted to make sure we could do everything possible to educate our members about the importance of belonging to the Vancouver Education Association,” said Rick Wilson, executive director for the association. He said the union visited every school to talk to members to make sure it was relevant. It also met with new hires to explain the benefits they provide. Membership in the union has risen from 1,650 before the ruling to 1,663, according to Wilson.
Van Nostran said that the value of the union for many members became apparent after teacher strikes last year in Southwest Washington that resulted in pay raises.
In Evergreen Public Schools, Clark County’s largest school district, the percentage of union employees dropped after Janus from 96 percent to 93 percent. Gail Spolar, district spokeswoman, said that 114 employees opted out of paying union dues.
School district employees are represented by multiple bargaining units. Bill Beville, president of the Evergreen Education Association, said that membership in his union has remained steady. He said the union has 1,800 members and 15 people opted out of the union. He said that the membership hasn’t dipped below 98 percent because of outreach efforts.
“I think we are going to be fine,” he said. “Most teachers are informed.”
Heavy hand or outstretched hand?
At the new member meeting for the Vancouver Education Association on a recent Friday, Katrice Thabet-Chapin, a school psychologist starting her first year in the district, had no hesitation about signing up for the union. She said that she’d seen unions give educators a voice in workload and other issues, essentially giving them a “seat in the front row.”
But Nelsen said that unions have relied on what he called “heavy-handed” tactics such as contracts that limit when employees can opt out. He also criticized legislation passed by Washington’s Democratic-dominated Legislature that made it easier for unions to deduct dues but harder for members to opt out.
“That just smacks of taking advantage of folks,” he said.
Unions and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, have pushed back on these claims. And Wilson said his union will act as soon as possible if a member opts out.
Nelsen said that he expects more legislation aimed at protecting unions to be introduced in Olympia next session. He also pointed to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Washington state employees arguing that union fees were improperly deducted from their paychecks. The Freedom Foundation has predicted that a victory could significantly undermine unions financially.
“The lines delineating what is OK and appropriate will get clearer over time,” said Nelsen. “But where that lands is pretty speculative at this point.”