Research has shown that states like Washington that have higher rates of unionization have lower rates of poverty both for union and nonunion workers
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against public-sector unions and workers this week in Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) will have negative ripple impacts for all of us who rely on the services that firefighters, nurses, teachers, park rangers and other public-sector workers deliver in our communities every day.
In our professional arenas — where we focus on state policy, environmental and social justice issues — the two of us see every day how critical public-sector unions are to reducing poverty, promoting equity and defending critical public services. We’ve seen how ‘right to work’ laws have led to declines in union membership. With the Janus ruling, public union members can opt out of union dues but still will share in the benefits of collective bargaining.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers can’t be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial blow to Democratic-leaning organized labor.
By raising wages for tens of thousands of workers through collective bargaining, unions continue to reduce poverty in Washington state. A well-known local example is Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775’s effort to raise wages for 35,000 home-care workers from $7.18 per hour with no benefits to wages ranging from $15 to $17.65 per hour with health and retirement benefits. These wage increases are helping Washington lead the nation in providing essential home-based, long-term care services to tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities.
Research has shown that states like Washington that have higher rates of unionization have lower rates of poverty for union and nonunion workers. Public sector unions were influential supporters of the 2016 ballot initiative that raised the statewide minimum wage and provided sick leave. They also helped lobby the Legislature to pass new paid family leave and equal-pay laws.
Public-sector unions also promote gender and racial equity by creating transparency in compensation, recruitment and promotions, and by helping to raise wages for occupations with disproportionately high numbers of women and people of color — occupations like teachers, nurses, child-care workers and social workers. In addition, unions frequently negotiate for improvements that specifically address equity issues. In 2015, teachers from the Seattle Education Association went on strike in part to advocate for action to reduce racial disproportionality in school discipline. This led to the creation of teams within many Seattle schools that are charged with advancing equity.
If it weren’t for unions, so many of the public services that we all rely on in our communities would have significantly less funding. During the recession in particular, public-sector workers and their unions were on the front lines of the fight to protect funding for things like parks, health care, schools and social services from being slashed to balance the state budget. In fact, during the recession in 2010, medical and social-service interpreters who help people with limited English proficiency navigate our state’s health-insurance programs formed a union with the Washington Federation of State Employees after the services they provide were unfairly slated for elimination. Through uniting as a union, these workers not only protected their jobs but also protected the services that thousands of limited English proficiency clients need.
This Supreme Court decision is a loss not just for workers, but for all of us who rely on the services that public-sector employees deliver in communities across the state. We know that public-sector workers are strong and will keep fighting for their rights in our state. In the wake of this harmful decision, it is up to our elected leaders to enact policies that strengthen the economic well-being of Washington’s working people and communities — through stronger labor standards, protections for workers’ rights to organize and funding for vital public services.