WA Supreme Court: Unions can no longer block release of state workers’ contact info

Sep 1, 2023, 1:04 PM | Updated: 1:20 pm

(MyNorthwest File Photo)...

(MyNorthwest File Photo)

(MyNorthwest File Photo)

Editors’ note: This story originally published Aug. 25 and was republished Sept. 1 with comments from the Washington Federation of State Employees included.

The Washington Supreme Court concluded Thursday the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Council 28 — in addition to approximately 50 more unions — can no longer block a request for a state employee’s contact information.

The “unions did not demonstrate particularized harm to affected public employees,” the court ruling reads.

The court case started after The Freedom Foundation, a conservative organization fighting against higher taxes and “entrenched power of left-wing government,” attempted to retrieve state employees’ full names, job titles, birthdates, work e-mail addresses, employer agency/departments, name/title of exclusive bargaining representative/union, FTE status/percentage, current annual salary and duty station location/address.

“WFSE cannot block a request for the contact information of thousands of state workers by citing bogus concerns about doxing the victims of domestic violence,” The Freedom Foundation wrote in a press release after the announcement of the decision. “This is a victory for the Freedom Foundation and the Washington Public Records Act.”

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A lower court judge granted an injunction allowing the union to deny this claim, but the Washington Supreme Court ruled the union hadn’t proved anyone would be endangered by granting the Freedom Foundation access to the above-listed information.

“The whole argument was a smokescreen,” Sydney Phillips, deputy chief litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation, wrote in a prepared statement. “There are — and always have been — ample provisions in the law to protect people whose safety is genuinely at risk. The union is simply hiding behind actual victims in order to continue collecting dues from people who might leave the union if they knew they had that option.”

Under a new state law, state workers can still request that personal details be withheld if they can prove it would put them at risk.

Freedom Foundation has targeted the release of union worker’s contact information dating back to 2015 as Maxford Nelson, Director of Labor Policy for the Freedom Foundation, stated they are building a database of state workers to be able to contact about their rights to opt out of paying for the union’s political activities, something he claimed most represented workers don’t realize they can do.

More on Freedom Foundation’s Maxford Nelson: Conservative group requests personal information of state employees

“In an attempt to weaken public sector unions, billionaire-funded anti-worker groups like the Freedom Foundation have repeatedly attempted to expand the amount of personally identifiable information on public employees that is subject to disclosure. They use this information to harass employees at home and at work,” WFSE writes on its website over the ongoing conflict. “Freedom Foundation operatives often pretend to be working for the union and try to trick employees into signing paperwork that will end their union membership.”

In turn, WFSE pushed for the passage of House Bill 1533, which allows public workers who have been victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment to alert their employer that certain sensitive information cannot be disclosed, according to the legislation. HB 1533 passed on May 15.

“When the Freedom Foundation made the information request in question, we did not have a law to protect the information of abuse survivors from disclosure. So our members came to us and we filed a lawsuit and were granted an injunction,” WFSE spokesperson Patrick Sugrue told MyNorthwest in a statement in response to the most recent ruling.

“When we had stopped the info request in the courts, we then turned our attention to the legislature where we passed House Bill 1533,” Sugrue added. “This new law accomplishes what we had achieved with the injunction. The Supreme Court recognized this which is why they sent the case back the the trial court to implement the new law.”

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Union membership among workers in the state of Washington is the third highest in the nation, according to a report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington had 615,000 union members last year, making up 18% of wage and salary workers in Washington, compared to just 10% nationally.

The case will now be remanded to Superior Court, which can apply the revised standards.

“That was our objective from the start,” Freedom Foundation’s Phillips said. “These questions should be dealt with at the legislative level, not by courts finding exemptions that don’t exist in the constitution.”

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WA Supreme Court: Unions can no longer block release of state workers’ contact info