by Sen. Doug Whitsett
One reason Democrats continue to politically dominate Oregon is the strength of organizations such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). That public employees’ union represents local, state and federal employees throughout the country. It has been one of the most powerful political entities in this state for the past few decades.
SEIU’s impressive machinery is dependent upon a handful of factors. Perhaps the most important is the nonstop growth and expansion of government, including the number of public employees.
Good economic times are used as an excuse to create new programs. Conversely, bad times are argued by proponents of big government to demonstrate the public’s further need for services.
Either way, public employee unions such as SEIU grow their memberships. Long-term costs continue to escalate and are placed fully on the shoulders of taxpayers and business owners.
SEIU’s widespread use of automatic government payroll deductions to collect its union dues is another source of its political muscle. Since its members are public employees, the State is essentially used as a collection agent that gathers dues straight from workers’ paychecks and funnels them directly to the union.
SEIU then uses the government-collected dues to fund its multi-million dollar political war chest and to pay its lobbyists. Those lobbyists keep the gravy train rolling by investing the “union share” of the taxpayer funded government payrolls to pay their own salaries. Their only purpose is to lobby for better SEIU salaries and benefits funded by more taxpayer dollars.
This accumulation of political influence has become a veritable industry in Oregon. SEIU had no fewer than 15 paid Oregon lobbyists on August first.
The amounts and frequencies of SEIU’s financial contributions to the campaigns of Democratic candidates and officeholders throughout Oregon clearly demonstrates the organization’s clout. Once elected, those officeholders may feel inordinately beholden to the union whose contributions helped get them elected.
Moreover, SEIU has a veritable army of “volunteers” that vigorously campaign for the union and its chosen candidates. Their well-founded expectation is that their efforts will be rewarded through collective bargaining negotiated increases in salaries and benefits that will be supported by the same political candidates they are helping through canvassing, phone banks, ballot collections and generous campaign contributions.
All of that campaign and lobbying work appears to be paying off handsomely. SEIU and its members have just recently approved a new four-year contract. This deal that benefits more than 20,000 state workers will also ultimately affect everyone who pays taxes in Oregon.
The new contract includes a 1.48 percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) this December. Another 2.75 percent COLA is scheduled for December 2016.
Moreover, the new contract calls of yet another day of paid leave to be taken the Friday after Thanksgiving, ensuring a four-day paid Thanksgiving holiday for all SEIU members.
The new contract calls for most union members to have 99 percent of their health insurance premium costs paid for by Oregon taxpayers. This represents a two percent increase from the 97 percent currently covered on their behalf.
All of these terms apply regardless of whether the state’s economic conditions improve, stagnate or worsen. They serve to insulate SEIU and its members from the reality of near certain Oregon budgetary deficits. They will be immune to the impending multi-billion dollar shortfall caused by increased costs for the Oregon Health Plan and the Public Employees Retirement System, starting in the 2017-19 biennium.
However, SEIU may have some potential problems looming on the horizon. A lawsuit has been filed against the union in the U.S. District Court in Eugene. The suit also names Governor Kate Brown and the directors of the Department of Human Services and Department of Administrative Services as defendants.
The plaintiff in the case is a homecare worker in Bend. The employee does not wish to be represented by the union, never agreed in writing to be one of its members and does not want money taken from her check to support political activities that she does not agree with.
A similar case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, a personal care provider who did not wish to join the organization or fund its political activities.
Public employee union membership has plummeted following each court decision that prevents governments from collecting mandatory union dues or collecting “fair share” payments in lieu of union dues. This would appear to indicate many union members do not support how their dues are being spent.
SEIU and other public employee unions continue to take advantage of the fact that Oregon is not a right to work state. They will continue to grow and abuse their power and influence until mandatory union membership is either restrained by the courts or by the enactment of a right to work law in Oregon.
It remains to be seen whether the state’s courts will continue to be receptive to these mandatory union enrollment practices. It is my hope that the courts will give public workers the opportunity to refuse to participate in union fund political activities they do not support.
In my opinion, no American should ever be coerced to participate in paying for political activities they oppose or even abhor. Too often, the automatic deduction of dues from public employees’ paychecks results in just such coercion. Worse, the unions are enhancing their political power by claiming to represent the interest of the same people they are forcing to pay dues against their will.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls