In 2017, seven nurses from Harborview Medical Center took issue with the fees they were paying SEIU 1199NW every month in lieu of full union dues. The law has long recognized it violates a worker’s Constitutional rights to confiscate dues and use that money to fund political candidates and causes he or she doesn’t support.
In such cases, the employee was permitted to opt out of full dues, but the union could still deduct from his or her wages an “agency fee” that excluded the worker’s share of what it was spending on political activity.
SEIU 1199NW, however, was still spending the nurses’ agency fees to organize other employee groups in completely different industries, on defensive activities meant to maintain the union’s existence and ideologically charged litigation—all of which have been declared unconstitutional.
The Harborview nurses expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of SEIU’s representation and filed a lawsuit over the union’s calculation of the fees it was charging them.
The Freedom Foundation represented the workers pro bono in the matter and, rather than go to court and risking a humiliating defeat, union leaders grudgingly agreed they would submit to binding arbitration.
SEIU evaded arbitration—and justifying its fee calculation scheme—by simply agreeing to refund the workers money.
This was the right thing to do, but the union apparently learned nothing from the experience because it resumed deducting fees from the nurses in 2018.
The nurses, again represented by the Freedom Foundation, this past spring filed a second lawsuit against SEIU 1199NW in federal district court for violating their First Amendment rights.
Originally, the suit demanded only an accounting of the fee calculation and return of any monies illegally taken. But in the wake of the Janus v. AFSCME ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory union dues or fees of all kinds, the Freedom Foundation’s attorneys amended the complaint to also demand the union restore all fees skimmed from the nurses since they had become objectors.
They also demanded the union no longer deduct fees without their affirmative consent.
Because of the Janus precedent, the union had no choice but to settle the case; it returned the forced fees to the nurses and agreed to exact no more fees without their consent.
This case follows directly from the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus, where the court specifically held that state employees must give affirmative and knowing consent before a union can withdraw dues.
The court’s Janus decision was a strong affirmation of the First Amendment right to be free from forced speech and association; we expect to see many more wins like this in the future.