Oregon’s public employee unions are nervously eying a case heard at the U.S. Supreme Court Monday that could deliver a serious blow to the political clout of organized labor in Oregon.
The case out of California could lead to an end to mandatory union dues in Oregon, Washington and the 21 other states that now require public employees to help financially support unions that bargain on their behalf.
“I think everybody (in the union movement) is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” said Gordon Lafer, a professor with the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. “It could be very significant.”
The state’s major public employee unions are among the most powerful political forces in Oregon. In 2014, they spent $8.4 million on campaigns in the state, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. The public employee unions contributed more than $2.2 million to Democratic legislative candidates. That’s almost 14 percent of the total contributions raised by Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature.
In fact, Jill Gibson, a Portland lawyer who has her own initiative attacking public employee union dues, said she thinks it could be politically transformative in Oregon if her side wins at the Supreme Court.
“I think Oregon would once again be a two-party state, which I think would be great for Oregon,” said Gibson, who filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of two state workers who say they shouldn’t have to pay union dues.
Union officials say business groups, and other political opponents, are pursuing the issue precisely because they want to weaken unions and the work they do on such causes as raising the minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave.
“It’s an attack against those who try to stand up against the ‘haves’ in this nation,” said Hanna Vaandering, a physical education teacher who is president of the Oregon Education Association.
The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are the other two major labor organizations representing public workers in the state. All told, about 57 percent of the more than 250,000 public employees in Oregon were covered by union contracts in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the ninth highest rate in the country.
Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME, said his union has long anticipated that the Supreme Court will side with the groups seeking to prohibit mandatory dues. That line of thought gained more sway Monday after a majority of the court spoke critically of mandatory dues during oral arguments.
As a result, Allen said his union has worked to persuade more workers about the value of unions, arguing that it improves their bargaining position with government employers.
Gibson’s initiative would also allow workers to opt out of paying dues while making it clear that they would not be represented by unions. She says that would solve the “free rider” issue of workers benefiting from union contracts while not paying dues. But union officials say public agencies are likely to pay all of their workers based on what is negotiated in union contracts.
Her initiative contains several other provisions opposed by unions, including one that would workers to annually certify that they still want union representation.
Gibson said she intends to go ahead with her measure regardless of how the Supreme Court rules. At this point, she is headed to the court to argue with opponents over the wording of the ballot title and has not been able to start gathering signatures.