A major argument against SEIU at UW is that the union’s role in politics is in conflict with the faculty’s mandate and long history of being apolitical.

The US Supreme Court may change that argument.  The Court’s decision could affect us in three ways:

  • Dues structure:  Of the estimated $6 million in dues, $5  million is for the national union.  Much of that money  would now be illegal. 
  • Lobbying:  the ability of the union to lobby in Olympia would be limited to support from  those faculty wishing to have the union act in that way.
  • Politics: SEIU would not be able to use its resources to support political campaigns, even as “dark” money. 

The practical issue is the SEIU’s intent to collect about $6 million in dues from UW faculty.  $5 million would go to the national union.  The case before SCOTUS would ban SEIU from collecting that money against the will of individual faculty.


From the SEIU FACEBOOK page. Click the image to see a long list of the causes supported by SEIU. These obviously extend far beyond negotiation over pay and benefits for union members represented by SEIU.

The argument for SEIU as a political force is compelling, but also complicated.   SEIU argues it is needed to counterbalance the political expenditures of the corporations and the overly wealthy.  Put another way, with the death of America’s industrial unions, public sector unions acting as political parties is inevitable.   We have seen this in Wisconsin where the openly Koch supported Governor Scott Walker has been at war with public unions.  The  outcome of this battle is still not determined but is certainly not in the interest of the democratic process and Wisconsin’s Huskies, the University of Wisconsin, has already been a major victim of the fight.

Nearby in Illinois a similar fight, this time centered around SEIU, broke out when  Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) was convicted of taking bribes for  declaring SEIU workers to be state employees for collective-bargaining purposes.  Again. the University of Illinois is a victim  It is  now over six months without a state budget.

Key to the SCOTUS case is the  source of union money, so called “fair share dues.” Are these simply administrative cost or do the dues subsidize SEIU as a political party?

  • Would SEIU even want a UW union without those dues? 
  • Would the UW faculty support a union if that union was restricted to the pay issue for contingent faculty?
  • Is SEIU the right choice to represent the faculty in issues like high academic standards, interactions with industry, and academic free speech? 

Now the issue of how a union can use its dues, is before the Supreme Court. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, members of public-school teacher unions in California argue that  the First Amendment prohibits their union from requiring them to pay what are known as “fair-share fees.”  While the unions argue that such fees are needed to cover the costs of maintaining union contracts, in practice public sector unions, like corporations owned by the Kochs, use these moneys to help organize political campaigns.  The unions see the political sphere as in the union’s interest just as the Koch’s see Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in the corporation’s interest.

Unions can use the financial might of “fair share dues ” to determine elections.  As we saw in the recent election of Kshama Sawant here in Seattle, union resources in the form of advisers and get- out-the-vote activities escape the scrutiny of laws requiring campaigns to report contributions.  These expenditures, called “dark money,” are totally separate from direct support in the form of campaign contributions or creation of “independent” PACs.

Put another way,  SEIU now functions as a political party. The problem is that its is difficult for a court to draw a line between a union lobbying for its interests versus a union conducting political activities.

The union issue is tricky because, while no one in the U.S. can be forced to join a labor union,  workers in our state can be required to pay fair-share fees to the union, even if they don’t want to be full-fledged members.

To be fair to the union argument, any union has to negotiate a contract for everyone in its  bargaining unit, even if some people don’t want to be members of the union.  Since bargaining is expensive, unions argue it’s only fair that everyone contribute to those costs.  The obvious problem here is that unlike a corporation a union MUST be political.  The SEIU governing body is elected democratically and the union needs to use moneys to recruit just as political parties need to recruit Democratic or Republican (or other) partisans.

Making the politicization of pubic sector unions worse is the obvious fact that  taxpayers, and therefore elected officials, determine the wages and work conditions of the union members.   A public sector union, usually without the right to strike, needs the the right to support candidates who share the union’s positions.

A good example is the recent strike by Seattle teachers.  The strike was against the District but since school  funding is set by the State, the result was a diversion of school funds from student resources to teachers’ pay.  That pay is very impressive.   Entry level base salaries at $51,000 are now amongst  the highest wages any recent graduates of the UW can obtain.  The only rival would be for some degrees in engineering and even those are for 12 months and lack opportunities for tenure.  Moreover, the teachers’ unions include in their contract “work rules” that provide tens of thousands in additional pay for “work days” and contracts determine educational policies that would be unimaginable in a private sector workplace.

Harlan Elrich, one of the teachers who brought the lawsuit, wrote in Huff Post that “the union’s collective bargaining is every bit as political” as the union’s politics. That political agenda, Elrich said, includes pushing for “ever-higher teacher salaries” for employees like himself, which he opposes. “That the union would presume to push, allegedly on my behalf, for higher salaries at the expense of smaller class sizes and avoiding teacher layoffs is preposterous,” he wrote.

The betting on this case is very, very close.  

 UW faculty  interested in the issue should go to this link for discussion of the legal issues.  


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