To one extent or another, probably every public-sector union aggressively violates the First Amendment rights of the government employees it claims to represent. But for sheer insolence, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is the heavyweight champion.
Here in Washington, in fact, SEIU Local 1199 has turned constitutional violations into an art form.
Kimble, a patient care coordinator at the University of Washington Medical Center, learned about SEIU 1199’s tactics the hard way.
SEIU 1199 organized Kimble’s workplace in 2019 even though she voted against unionization. Federal law, however, still forced her to be exclusively represented by the union.
At the time, Kimble worked for the Northwest Hospital & Medical Center (NWH), a private-sector medical provider (subsequently absorbed by the University of Washington on Jan. 1, 2020).
Even though she no longer paid traditional union sues, as a private-sector employee at the time Washington law required Kimble to pay compelled “agency fees” to SEIU 1199 in as a condition of employment.
Kimble heard all this second hand. Not wanting to lose her job, she asked NWH’s human resources director if she, in fact, had to join the union to save her job. The director responded, “(I)t is correct that you may be terminated by NWH if you do not join the union.”
Kimble signed SEIU 1199’s membership card because she thought it was necessary to save her job. But make no mistake: Kimble’s opinion of the union hadn’t changed one bit.
Even in the private sector, an employee cannot be required to become a union member as a condition of employment. While federal private-sector law permits states to compel union fees, it prohibits states from requiring employees to become actual union members.
Kimble’s human resources director’s statement was a complete misrepresentation — though a common one resulting because compelled agency fees are often equated to union membership, which is untrue.
Simply put, Kimble didn’t need to become a union member. She could have declined union membership without fear of being fired and instead pay a reduced agency fee as opposed to full union dues.
This matters because UW absorbed NWH on Jan. 1, 2020. This meant Kimble became a public-sector worker entitled to full First Amendment protections under Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, the 2018 Supreme Court decision that prohibited compelled union fees.
Kimble knew about Janus even during her days at NWH and eagerly anticipated UW’s takeover so she could opt out of union membership and stop subsidizing an organization she did not support.
On Jan. 15, 2020, Kimble resigned her membership in SEIU 1199 and objected to the payment of any union dues. Had she been recognized as a nonmember agency fee payer, SEIU 1199 would have been obligated to instruct UW to immediately stop deducting union dues.
But instead of allowing Kimble to exercise her First Amendment rights, SEIU 1199 forced her to continue paying union dues because the union card Kimble was tricked into signing contained terms limiting her ability to opt out of dues payments to a two-week window each year.
To put it mildly, this enraged Kimble. She felt SEIU 1199 and her employer misled her into becoming a union member and signing the membership card SEIU 1199 now cited to justify the ongoing compelled union dues payments.
But SEIU 1199 was unsympathetic.
Not only did the union inform Kimble it would continue to instruct UW to deduct full union dues from her wages, but SEIU 1199 refused to send her a copy of the membership card it was using to force Kimble to continue paying dues.
Instead, SEIU 1199 established a cumbersome set of procedural hoops Kimble would need to jump through to acquire a copy of the card that supposedly justified the ongoing union dues deductions in the first place.
SEIU 1199 refused to simply send a copy of the card to Kimble through email or regular mail, which is common practice among most unions. Instead, the union informed Kimble its “… policy is that if someone wants to see their card, they need to make an appointment with our director and show proper ID prior to viewing.”
Such a procedure is, of course, ridiculous. It is simply a way to antagonize employees who exercise their First Amendment rights and make it difficult to keep their own money out of the union’s coffers.
Kimble requested a meeting with SEIU 1199’s director but, not surprisingly, no one at SEIU 1199 responded to her request.
For its part, UW couldn’t care less if its union dues deductions were properly authorized and SEIU 1199 had cut off communications with her.
At this point, Kimble contacted the Freedom Foundation.
Immediately, one of the organization’s attorneys fired off a letter to SEIU 1199 explaining the situation and threatening legal action. SEIU 1199’s director of operations and administration responded with an email informing Kimble that, due to the current COVID-19 crisis, SEIU 1199 would send her a copy of her membership card if Kimble submitted a host of further identifying information.
In other words, SEIU 1199 was still imposing burdensome procedures on Kimble.
SEIU 1199 directly contacted Kimble, completely bypassing her attorney even though Kimble and her attorney specifically requested that SEIU 1199 communicate with the attorney. But SEIU 1199 is not concerned with professional courtesy or proper legal protocol.
Kimble nonetheless sent SEIU 1199 the required information even though the union’s procedures were labor-intensive and unlawful. In response, rather than send Kimble (or her attorney) the union membership card, they refunded the entire amount of union dues SEIU 1199 had collected from Kimble even going back to her 2019 employment in the private sector.
Clearly, the union did not want its practices to come to light in a lawsuit.
It would be nice if SEIU 1199’s abusive practices where the exception rather than the rule. But they are not.
What’s most unfortunate is that unions get away with these heavy-handed practices most of the time because employees normally lack the resources to fight back.
Unions are masters of intimidation. SEIU 1199 only relented this time because its leaders know the Freedom Foundation doesn’t back down. We have proven that over and over again.
Threats to file lawsuits on behalf of abused public workers are followed by, well…lawsuits. This is why it is so important the Freedom Foundation continue its mission to protect public workers’ individual rights.
Union rights do not equal workers’ rights.
Unions have been the bully on the playground for generations. But with help from the Freedom Foundation, union tyranny in the public workplace is coming to an end one worker at a time.