Opinion: Public employee First Amendment rights shouldn’t be a secret



Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center shares how Washington officials aren’t actively spreading the word to workers about their rights

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

Go into an employee break room. On the wall, or tacked to a cabinet, you’ll often notice large, small-font posters of various employee rights. Notices for many workplace protections are mandatory, and we agree that it’s important for employees to easily access and understand their rights. An optional poster you might not see, however, is one detailing the right of a public employee to join or not join a union. That First Amendment right was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

It’s been almost four years since the Supremes ruled it unconstitutional to force public-sector workers to pay a union as a condition of employment. Yet many employees still don’t know about the protection. 

That’s no surprise. The state isn’t actively spreading the word to workers about their First Amendment rights, clarified by the justices on June 27, 2018.  Neither are public-employee unions in our state.

Unions make their money off of public employees and would no doubt love to keep them in the dark. Workers who opt out of unions have even been villainized, as have people trying to get workers’ information about the Janus case or point them to an easy-to-use website called optouttoday.com. The site, run by the Freedom Foundation, offers workers information about what are known as Janus rights, providing them an easy-to-use opt-out tool. 

Taxpayers are the ones who pay public employees’ paychecks, not union bosses or lawmakers. And public-sector workers should know that they don’t need to lower the wages they’re paid or belong to a union that has them financing politics with which they disagree to keep their jobs. Washington voters can also get rid of politicians if they feel they aren’t treating workers fairly. 

Unions could earn the allegiance of public workers, giving those who want nothing to do with them a reason to keep giving them money. They could stop pursuing political agendas. In other words, they can become responsive to their members and make themselves attractive to potential members so that they earn voluntary membership — something every other private organization (and these unions are private organizations) must do.

Instead, hurdles that make disassociation with a union difficult, pressure on employees and a continued divisive political drumbeat have been the mode of operation since the Janus ruling.

Even public workers who do find out about their Janus rights and don’t want to be part of a union have a hard time getting out. From tricky fine print on union cards and opt-out periods that last only a matter of days each year to the return of certified mail indicating their decision to leave, unions try to keep workers from exercising their First Amendment rights.

Constance Cooke, a high school teacher in Washington state remarks, “My dad was a union leader for many years and I am willing to support those who fight for fair wages and working conditions. However, I am not willing to support an organization with an agenda I don’t agree with.” She adds that the Janus decision should make opting out easy.

With unions circumventing the ruling and snubbing workers’ constitutional rights, and politicians not sticking up for employees, opting out isn’t easy. The Janus ruling is a victory for workers. It’s a shame that four years later many are still unaware of the landmark decision, being kept in the dark about their rights or having those rights circumvented with political games. 

Government employees should be guaranteed freedom of association and speech, and they should be informed they aren’t required by government to give a portion of their paychecks to a union they may or may not agree with in order to have a public job in Washington state. 

Even accused criminals are informed of their rights before arrest.  It’s time public employees were guaranteed information about their First Amendment rights affirmed by Janus.

Check out our video on Janus rights here

The state Office of Financial Management offers a Q&A related to Janus here. Required state notifications, which include things such as overtime, rest and meal breaks, and the state’s paid leave law, are here

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.


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