The Freedom Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of four family child-care providers who object to being forced to pay union fees and otherwise associate with SEIU 925.
OLYMPIA — In a case that could enfeeble public-sector unions, a conservative group is suing Washington state and SEIU 925, challenging the union’s role as the exclusive representative for thousands of subsidized day-care providers.
The Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank, filed the federal lawsuit this week on behalf of four family home-care providers who object to being forced to pay union fees and otherwise associate with the union.
During a news conference on the steps of the state Supreme Court, lawsuit backers said Thursday they hope to secure a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending the longstanding right of unions like SEIU to act as exclusive bargaining units for entire groups of workers.
“If we’re successful … we will leave every worker, every provider, every citizen free to decide for themselves what they want to do about unions,” said Milton Chappell, senior staff attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, a Virginia-based organization also aiding in the class-action lawsuit.
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A ruling in favor of the conservative group would be a major blow to organized labor, which already has seen its clout diminished over decades of declining union membership.
“The viability of public-sector unions in Washington state is at stake in this litigation,” Elizabeth Ford, a labor-law expert and visiting professor at Seattle University School of Law, said in an email.
The case challenges “a central proposition” in U.S. labor law since the New Deal — that a union, once elected by a majority of workers in a workplace, has the authority to bargain on their behalf, Ford said.
An SEIU 925 leader dismissed the case as an attack by anti-labor forces and noted only four people signed on as plaintiffs, out of about 7,000 child-care providers represented by the union.
“We’re standing strong,” said Marie Keller, family child-care provider chapter president for the union. Keller said providers have achieved substantial gains since the union was certified to represent them in 2006, getting higher subsidy payments, training and other benefits.
“Before we were organized, we suffered financial losses every time the state was hit hard by tough economic times. Now we’re able to have a voice at the table,” she said.
But the child-care providers who joined the lawsuit object to the union’s liberal political activism.
Cindy Mentele, a Shoreline family child-care provider who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a written statement she hoped it would “shed some light on the shadowy relationship between the state and SEIU,” calling the union “more of a political organization than an employee union.”
The lawsuit seeks to build on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Harris v. Quinn ruling last year that struck down the ability of unions like SEIU to collect mandatory fees from workers to cover collective-bargaining expenses.
Despite that ruling, Freedom Foundation officials said, some workers here have had to repeatedly pester SEIU before the union stopped deducting the fees. The lawsuit seeks repayment of all such payments for the past three years, plus attorneys’ fees and damages.
James Abernathy, a Freedom Foundation attorney, said the state and union are not advertising the option for workers to halt union payments because “they both thrive on an ignorant bargaining unit.”
In addition to SEIU, the lawsuit names Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials. Inslee’s office had no comment Thursday. Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office also had no immediate comment.
The Freedom Foundation has tangled with unions in the courts before. Its CEO, Tom McCabe, pointed to the organization’s lawsuit against the state teachers union, which resulted in a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said unions must get permission from members before using mandatory dues for political purposes.
“Our case today will help finish the job,” McCabe said.