SEIU 775’s most recent legal humiliation, being forced to finally concede that workers who never joined the union in the first place cannot be forced to pay dues, is an embarrassment for more than just the union itself. It also lays bare a Washington State Supreme Court more concerned with partisanship than principle and may well have been the deciding factor in SEIU 775’s decision to part ways with founding president David Rolf just days after the union capitulated.
But first and foremost, it represents freedom for approximately 6,000 Washingtonians who spent decades watching helplessly as the union skimmed money from their paychecks that had been earmarked by Medicaid for the care of their low-income, disabled family members and loved ones.
From its inception in 2002, SEIU 775 believed every Medicaid-paid homecare provider owed it a percentage of his or her salary — either as regular dues or so-called “agency fees” deducted from workers who had successfully opted out of the union but were still expected to fund its collective bargaining costs.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in Harris v. Quinn (2014) that home health caregivers — in addition to home-based childcare providers, language-access providers and adult family home providers — were not full-fledged public employees and could not be compelled to pay the union anything.
The ruling made clear that unions needed a worker’s informed consent prior to deducting dues, and the unions representing all the other Washington state workers affected by Harris grudgingly agreed to wait until given permission to start garnishing their members’ paychecks.
But SEIU 775, the Washington’s largest and most ruthless public employee union, refused to comply. As it had for years, the union continued deducting dues from every Medicaid homecare provider unless or until they were able to navigate the maze of rules and regulations imposed by SEIU 775 to make the opting-out process as difficult as possible.
In a March 2015 court declaration, in fact, SEIU 775 Secretary-Treasurer Adam Glickman admitted the union was then seizing dues from the paychecks of about 6,000 caregivers who had never signed up for union membership.
Later that same year, the Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Washington caregivers led by Miranda Thorpe, demanding the state stop collecting dues unless it had been authorized by the worker.
Shockingly, the case went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, and in May 2017 the justices ruled 9-0 that the unauthorized seizures were permitted by state law. The justices did not rule on whether the practice or the state law was actually constitutional.
It didn’t take long for that question to be answered, though. In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, the landmark case in which the justices ruled that all public employees — not just the small subset affected by Harris — had a Constitutional right to opt out and pay their designated union nothing.
But the ruling went even farther. Borrowing language almost word for word from an amicus brief submitted by the Freedom Foundation, Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Janus also made clear that paying dues represents a waiver of the worker’s rights — a waiver that must be made knowingly and voluntarily.
The Freedom Foundation was quick to revisit the issue. Just weeks after the Janus decision, Freedom Foundation attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington seeking the repayment of money illegally seized from providers.
The plaintiffs and class members all had a portion of their wages illegally seized by the state of Washington on behalf of SEIU 775 without their consent. The lawsuit, Schumacher v. Inslee, was filed because Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the union illegally deducted money from thousands of providers — all of whom are entitled to the return of their hard-earned money.
And this time, the union saw the handwriting on the law.
On Aug. 3, the state and the SEIU 775 signed a memorandum of understanding modifying the dues deduction process in the existing collective bargaining agreement and removing language requiring the automatic deductions.
Instead, the state will now only collect dues from caregivers’ wages “upon proper authorization by a home care worker.”
With the stroke of a pen, 6,000 workers from whom the union had been illegally deducting dues for years had their First Amendment rights to decide for themselves returned. And at an average of $600 a year in dues, that represents a potential loss of $3.6 million the union will never see again.
Even better, longtime SEIU 775 President David Rolf, on Aug. 7 announced his “retirement,” citing a 12-year term limit provision in the bylaws he’d already ignored four years ago.
At just 48, Rolf claims to be in good health, but the union he’s leaving behind isn’t. SEIU 775 and its culture of corruption have been the subject of numerous allegations in recent years, and the advent of Janus promises to blow a huge hole in the its funding stream moving forward.
The union’s national leadership, which considered Rolf one of its rising stars just a few months ago, couldn’t have been pleased that the Freedom Foundation emerged as perhaps the most prominent policy organization in the nation in the fight to see Janus decided — despite the best efforts of Rolf and his henchmen to destroy us first.
But his bungling of first Thorpe then Schumacher must have been the final straw.