For decades, public-sector unions in many states relied on laws that required government employees to choose between paying dues and losing their job to create the illusion of solidarity. But since a landmark 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively banned the practice, they’ve had to employ more specialized methods — including a growing number of lawsuits against their own members — to maintain it.
A pair of California public employees represented by the Freedom Foundation filed suit on July 23, for example, challenging whether SEIU 721 can force its “members” to remain in the fold against their wishes until the union’s current collective bargaining agreement with their employer expires.
Matthew Wilkins, an employee of the Ventura County Fire Department, and Anna Aguirre, who works for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, have sought to leave SEIU 721, the union representing their respective bargaining units, and still keep their jobs — an action they could not have taken until recently.
On June 27, 2018, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that a public employee’s constitutional rights are violated by state laws requiring them either to join their designated union and pay full dues or a so-called “agency fee” imposed by the union ostensibly to help defray the cost of negotiating a contract that benefits even nonmembers.
After learning about Janus, Wilkins and Aguirre formally requested to leave SEIU 721 and stop paying dues. In both cases the union refused, relying on wording in its contracts with both workers’ respective employers that forbids opt-outs until after the CBA has expired — and then only during an arbitrarily fixed window of opportunity lasting a few days.
Unfortunately for the union, such requirements fly in the face of Janus because a contract between a union and an employer cannot void a public employee’s First Amendment rights of free speech and free association.
What’s more, Janus also stipulated that union membership agreements, by definition, require a worker to waive his or her First Amendment right not to financially support a union. And such waivers must be made both affirmatively and knowingly.
“Neither Wilkins nor Aguirre clearly and affirmatively waived their First Amendment rights as required under Janus,” said Mariah Gondeiro, Freedom Foundation litigation counsel.
SEIU 721 has never been able to produce, and Wilkins does not remember signing, a membership card in which he agreed to join SEIU 721, Gondeiro noted. He did sign a payroll deduction authorization in 2014, and the document permitted Wilkins to stop the deductions at any time by sending a written notice to Ventura County — which he did.
Aguirre, meanwhile, was tricked into signing a membership application because of false information provided by a union representative. She was told that signing the card would merely update her beneficiary information.
Regardless, Aguirre did not affirmatively waive her First Amendment rights as required under Janus.
In both cases, SEIU 721 ultimately relies on the CBA to force Wilkins and Aguirre to continue to pay, which in Aguirre’s case is for almost two more years. The CBA provisions, and the state law that authorizes the provisions, Gondeiro explained, are invalid under Janus. Consequently, SEIU 721 has no lawful justification to continue deducting dues and/or fees from the plaintiffs’ wages.
The suit — which lists SEIU 721, Ventura County, Los Angeles County and the auditor-controller of each county as defendants — is one of many similar court actions filed by the Freedom Foundation in California, Oregon and Washington, where it has offices.