Freedom Foundation

Orange County Lifeguards and Beyond Drowning in Union Dues, File Suit Against State

More than twenty lifeguards in Orange County and surrounding counties filed a class-action lawsuit on Jan. 06 against the California State Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA), alleging the union violated their Constitutional rights by forcing them to maintain union membership against their express wishes.

The lifeguards, employed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, have sought to leave the union by exercising their rights under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which affirmed that union dues in the public sector are tantamount to political speech and cannot be coerced.

Moreover, the ruling also stressed that government employees who choose to pay dues voluntarily are waiving their First Amendment right not to. Consequently, a union membership cannot be valid unless the worker affirmatively agrees to it after being fully advised by the union of his or her rights.

CSLEA, however, claims the plaintiffs must stay in the union until the end of their collective bargaining agreement with Parks and Recreation, which expires in 2023.  The union’s reasoning relies on an unconstitutional “maintenance of membership” provision in its CBA and outlined in state law to force the plaintiffs to continue paying money for another three and half years.

“Their argument is absurd on its face,” said Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney with the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit public policy organization representing the lifeguards. “The California State Legislature can’t write laws that exempt its friends from the U.S. Constitution, and the union can’t rely on an unconstitutional state law to deny people their rights.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, also names as plaintiffs California Controller Betty Yee and Attorney General Xavier Becerra because the state continues to illegally deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks.

With the Freedom Foundation’s help, more than 100 lifeguards across the southern coast sent opt-out requests to CSLEA last September. The official “letter of withdrawal” stated, “(W)e will no longer pay into a union that continually refuses to provide any benefits, career advancement opportunities, monetary pay incentives or career-oriented seasonal lifeguards.”

CSLEA won’t let the plaintiffs leave the union, though. The union’s membership coordinator responded on Oct. 17 that she could not honor their request because the “window has closed.”

“The plaintiffs never agreed to have their rights restricted by a maintenance of membership arrangement that clearly violates the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s clear intent in Janus,” Gondeiro said. “What’s more, their membership agreement would have been invalid in any case because they were never advised before they signed it that they were waiving their right not to.”

The lawsuit seeks declaratory judgments recognizing the state’s maintenance of membership law is unconstitutional, as are the union’s attempts to continue collecting dues because of it.

Freedom Foundation attorneys are also demanding an injunction halting the scheme in addition to unspecified damages and the return of all illegally withheld dues.

The Freedom Foundation, with offices in Washington, Oregon, California and Ohio, is a nationally recognized leader in the struggle to protect government employees from abuse by the unions that claim to represent their best interests and is currently involved in more than 50 other similar cases.