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The Overcast: Labor Leader David Rolf Discusses Threats To Public Sector Unions

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this 2013 file photo, labor leader David Rolf declares victory after the $15 minimum wage for Sea-Tac Airport workers was approved by voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case later this month that could deal a blow to unions representing public sector employees.

It asks whether government workers should be required to pay union dues if they disagree with the union's politics. It builds on another case involving home health care workers paid through Medicaid.

These issues are also playing out in Washington state.

Home health care workers here are represented by Service Employees International Union local 775. A bill working through the state legislature would allow a private third party to manage their contract.

Critics of the bill say it could be a way for the union to force these public sector employees to pay union dues regardless of their opinion because it opens the door to negotiating a "union shop" contract.

David Rolf is the president of SEIU 775. He spoke with Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner about the upcoming court case and the state legislation.

The conversation above is an excerpt from The Overcast, the Seattle Times politics podcast recorded at KNKX. Here are some highlights:

On the significance of Janus v. AFSCME: "The labor movement's likely to lose the Janus case, and so in this case of public sector employment, I think we have to be sober and clear-eyed about what's likely to happen. But we should understand it's happening for a reason. It's happening because the organized right wing wants to destroy the only remaining private-sector institutions -- that is, non-governmental, non-philanthropic institutions -- that are fighting for average working people."

On the purpose of SB6199: "The case-management bill that the Department of Social and Health Services introduced and requested updates and modernizes the case management system. As the program has become more complex and workers are now entitled to real benefits, the state identified a huge gap in lack of professional management systems that they don't believe they have core competency to administer."

On SEIU support of the bill: "We're for it. You pointed out that unions are often against privatization. So we had a debate about the potential risks and potential benefits of this system, and there are some potential risks. What if the company has strongly anti-union management? You don't see state dollars being used to hire union-busters, for example.  ...Our Board adopted a sort of statement of under what circumstances we would support the bill, which provisions we think needed to be in there to strengthen and maintain the strong employment protections for workers, benefits and pay and training that we have developed over the last, now, 16-17 years."

You can find The Overcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, TuneIn and Stitcher.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.