Freedom Foundation

Suit Claims California Public Employees Didn’t Join Union ‘Affirmatively and Knowingly’

A pair of California public employees have filed a lawsuit against Teamsters 2010 arguing an often-overlooked provision of last summer’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME allows them to opt out of the union despite having signed a membership agreement before the decision was issued.

San Bernardino County residents Douglas Smith and Paul Homstad, both employed as plumbers at California State University-San Bernardino, allege they were misled into signing “commitment cards” when Teamsters 2010 replaced the State Employees Trades Council (SETC-United) in 2017 as exclusive representative for workers in their bargaining unit.

In their suit, filed on April 25 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Smith and Homstad say they were approached by union operatives during their lunch break who said they had to sign the commitment card to effectuate the transfer from SETC-United, even though they already held a vote.

Given only 30 minutes to make up their minds, both reluctantly agreed. They didn’t want to stand in the way of Teamsters 2010 bargaining on behalf of all the employees.

And under California state law, their membership is irrevocable at least until the 30-day window before the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the university expires on June 30, 2020.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus that mandatory union dues or fees for government workers is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

More pointedly, the union must also prove each member gave affirmative consent to join — and that they were informed that in doing so they were waiving their rights.

“By that standard, no membership agreement between any union and its members is valid unless accompanied by documentation showing the worker voluntarily and knowingly agreed to waive his or her First Amendment rights,” said Mariah Gondeiro-Watt, an attorney for the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit policy organization representing Smith and Homstad.

“One of the unions’ favorite schemes to thwart earlier court decisions against compulsory unionization was to simply assume every worker wanted to be a member and pay dues until they managed to successfully opt out,” she explained. “Janus specifically banned that practice and made clear that the burden of proof is now on the union, not the worker.”

In the case of Smith and Homstad, they could not possibly have acknowledged waiving rights that weren’t fully articulated until a year after they’d signed their commitment cards.

Nonetheless, when both attempted to opt out of Teamsters 2010 in the months following the Janus ruling, their request was denied.

“The union can’t hide behind the idea that the workers signed membership cards or that California state law binds them to the union for the length of its current CBA,” Gondeiro Watt said. “Under Janus, both were invalid to begin with because they violate the workers’ Constitutional rights.”

The Freedom Foundation raised a similar argument last month in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of five California teachers, and in suits in Oregon and Washington, where it also maintains offices.

Janus changed the whole landscape for public employees and the unions that want to represent them,” Gondeiro-Watt said. “The language of the ruling couldn’t be more clear, but that isn’t stopping the unions from dragging their feet. They’re still working through the grieving process, and that starts with denial.”

In their lawsuit — which also includes the head of The California State University Board of Trustees, California State Controller Betty Yee and Attorney General Xavier Becerra as defendants — Smith and Homstad are seeking unspecified damages and the refund of illegally confiscated dues with interest.

In addition, the Freedom Foundation is asking for a declaratory judgment acknowledging the state’s actions in deducting dues from their pay was a violation of the U.S. Constitution and an injunction preventing further dues deductions as authorized under California state law.