Freedom Foundation attorneys have successfully freed another California public employee, Tom Purciel, from a union’s unconstitutional deductions from his lawfully earned wages.
Unfortunately, in wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Janus v. AFSCME, the behavior of unions has not improved on this front. It has only gotten worse. The tribulations of Mr. Purciel are a perfect example.
Tom Purciel is a Senior Planner for El Dorado County, who when hired in 2005 became a member of El Dorado County Employees Association, Local #1/ AFSCME Council 57. Over time, he observed that his union seemed to do more for its political agenda than for its representation of workers. He grew weary of the union’s practice of taking his lawfully earned wages and spending it on political activities.
On July 11, 2023, Mr. Purciel sent a letter to AFSCME Council 57 exercising his constitutional right to leave the union. The union ignored him.
Mr. Purciel also contacted the payroll officer for the County of El Dorado and requested that they stop making deductions from his lawfully earned wages and providing his money to the union. The government payroll department told Mr. Purciel that they would not end the deductions without the direction of the union.
This is an unfortunate consequence of the statutory scheme operating under California Government Code Section 1157.12, which forces public employees to direct requests that “cancel or change deductions for employee organizations to the employee organization, rather than to the public employer.” This means that to end deductions from their lawfully earned wages, public employees must go through the direct beneficiaries of these deductions and then rely on them to direct their employer to cease dues deductions. Section 1157.12 also forces public employers to defer to unions over whether the employee has opted out of union dues. Section 1157.12 states in relevant part that public employers shall rely on the “information provided by the employee organization regarding whether deductions for an employee organization were properly canceled or changed.” If a union and an employeeprovide conflicting accounts over whether the employee has canceled dues, the statute still forces employers to defer to unions.
This is not only unconstitutional, it is nonsensical.
Section 1157.12 has created a system that guts employees’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights.
To make matters worse, public-sector unions often seek to limit when public employees can exercise their Janus rights by holding them to nebulous and highly ambiguous window periods. Unions list window periods in small print on authorization cards which make no mention of the First Amendment or Janus.
Back to Tom Purciel.
AFSCME Council 57 had Mr. Purciel sign a card in 2020 that restricted his ability to leave the union to a narrow period in the year and made no mention of his First Amendment right to avoid joining the union or paying dues in the first place. When Mr. Purciel sent his opt-out letter in July, he was about five days removed from a stated window period that would be difficult to ascertain for the untrained eye.
It was not until Mr. Purciel retained counsel from the Freedom Foundation who sent a demand letter to the union that they even acknowledged his request, let alone acquiesce. The union has since released Mr. Purciel from the union, confirmed that unauthorized deductions will not continue, and gave him a refund of the dues they deducted since he sent his opt-out letter.
However, a constitutional right should be a constitutional right every day of the year, not just on a handful of days selected by government unions. California’s public sector unions have hidden behind Section 1157.12 for far too long as they puppeteer public employers like marionettes and leave workers like Tom Purciel without any meaningful ability to exercise their Janus rights.
Government unions far too often ignore workers when they assert their right to withdraw from their unions and cease paying dues. It should not take demand letters from legal teams for public employees to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights, but that is the reality faced by people like Tom Purciel every day. The strife Tom Purciel faced as he sought to leave his union will continue to be the strife of workers every day for as long as Section 1157.12 remains the law in California.
The Freedom Foundation continues to play a vital role in helping public sector workers navigate the stockades of bureaucracy that stand between them, and meaningful protection of the First Amendment rights announced by the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME.