The sound of squealing you hear is public-sector unions — and, by extension, the politicians they buy and sell — being weaned off the teat of worker dues money.
Despite a series of court rulings dating back nearly 45 years that ban the practice, too many government employees still mistakenly believe they have no choice but to allow their union to use a portion of their dues money for political activities if they wish to keep their jobs. Or worse, they don’t even know their hard-earned dollars are spent in support of candidates and causes they oppose.
But it isn’t just dues.
On Thursday, the Freedom Foundation filed a federal class-action lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in Portland on behalf of 10 current or former Oregon public employees alleging their union, SEIU 503, systematically withheld an additional $2.75 from each paycheck to build up a political slush fund.
The charge, which the union describes as an “issues assessment,” is separate from regular dues payments and has shown up since at least 1998 only as a small line item on the employee’s pay stub.
Few ever question what the deduction is used for and no one has ever authorized it. The union simply takes the money — in clear violation of several landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, for example, stipulated as far back as 1977 that public employees cannot be forced to support political speech. More recently, the court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME (2018) that all union participation — membership, dues and fees — must be voluntary, and that workers who waive their First Amendment right not to participate must give their informed consent.
“SEIU 503 has a responsibility to inform its members they have a constitutional right to opt out of all dues and fees,” said Rebekah Millard, litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit policy organization that specializes in informing and assisting government employees who don’t want to support union activities.
“If it fails to do so, their membership agreement is nullified,” she said. “None of the plaintiffs was even told why the union was taking $2.75 out of every check, let alone that they had the power to stop it.”
Millard said the suit calls for reimbursement of all fees illegally taken from the plaintiffs, in addition to a declaratory judgment conceding the deductions were improper and an injunction to prevent the union from continuing the practice.
“Workers expect their union to devote its resources to advocating for better pay, benefits and working conditions, not playing politics,” Millard said. “And the court precedent that spells out the rules for how dues money must be spent doesn’t make an exception for fees the member isn’t aware he or she is paying and has no power to stop.
“Two seventy-five each month isn’t by itself an enormous amount,” she concluded, “but when you’re talking about tens of thousands of employees, it adds up to millions. That’s a lot of money — especially since the union doesn’t have any right to collect it in the first place.”