Freedom Foundation

California Lawsuit Has the Potential to Invalidate Virtually Every Current Union Membership

A class-action lawsuit filed on July 11 by a group of California In-Home Supportive Service (IHSS) providers will test whether or not a bitterly contested 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling rendered the membership card of virtually every unionized public-sector worker in the country invalid.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, names United Domestic Workers (UDW) AFSCME Local 3930 and California State Controller Betty Yee as defendants.

The courts have recognized since at least 2014 that compulsory union dues and fees violate the First Amendment rights of individual providers being compensated by Medicaid to care for a loved one. But last summer’s controversial ruling in Janus v. AFSCME affirming the same protections for all public employees included additional language stipulating that unions must inform those who agree to pay dues that their decision amounts to a waiver of their Constitutional rights.

“The wording in Janus is unambiguous,” said Eric Stahlfeld, chief litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation, a West Coast-based public policy organization representing the California plaintiffs in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation.

“A public employee allowing his or her dues to be taken is waiving a constitutional right,” he said, “which can only be done voluntarily and knowingly.”

And since it’s impossible for a worker to have knowingly waived a right that wasn’t articulated by the court until the Janus ruling was issued, it follows that all union membership cards signed prior to June 27, 2018, are invalid — as are those signed after the ruling, unless it can be shown the worker was fully informed of the consequences of his or her decision.

“The unions could see the handwriting on the wall,” Stahlfeld said. “When they realized the ruling in Janus wasn’t going to go in their favor, they launched a campaign to sign up as many new members as possible and pressured current members to sign renewal cards.”

When workers subsequently learned about the Janus ruling, many decided to exercise their newly recognized right to opt out of union participation. In such cases, however, standard practice for the union was to terminate the requester’s membership but continue deducting dues as long as there was a signed membership card in force.

The worker was usually told he or she could cease dues payments only by re-applying during a narrow window of a few days in conjunction with the anniversary of their having signed a membership card.

“The unions assert that a signed membership card empowers the state to deduct dues on their behalf for as long as the contract is in force,” Stahlfeld explained. “We maintain such contracts were never valid in the first place unless the union made a point of informing the worker about the rights they were waiving — something they almost never do.”

To prove the point, the California suit includes one plaintiff who signed her membership card nine years prior to the Janus ruling and three others coerced to sign in the months after it was issued.

The Freedom Foundation, which has offices in California, Oregon and Washington, has filed similar lawsuits in all three states.

“Union dues for millions of public employees have been mandatory in many states for decades,” Stahlfeld said. “Janus affirmed they must be voluntary — a move that could potentially cost the unions billions of dollars every year.

“They’re desperate to keep the spigot of other people’s money open,” he said. “But the wishes of a powerful special interest don’t entitle it to simply ignore the clear intent of a long-overdue Supreme Court ruling.”