Freedom Foundation

School Employees Challenge California Law Binding Them to Union

A pair of California public education employees have filed a lawsuit against their designated labor unions and the state of California alleging their request to opt out of union membership and stop paying dues was rejected because their collective bargaining agreements and state laws authorize unions to keep employees as members against their will.

The suit, filed on March 28 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, challenges a provision of the state’s 1978 Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA) requiring public school employees, as a condition of employment, to “maintain his or her (union) membership in good standing for the duration of the (collective bargaining agreement).”

Last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which affirmed that forcing public-sector employees to financially support a union is a violation of their First Amendment rights, made clear that association with a union, whether through membership or financial support, is a voluntary choice. Forced membership violates basic freedoms of speech and association.

Janus recognized that compelling public workers to provide money to a union with which they disagree is unconstitutional,” said Karin Sweigart, an attorney with the Freedom Foundation, a West Coast nonprofit policy organization representing the plaintiffs. “But forcing employees to remain union members in addition to paying dues is an even more egregious afront to their rights.

“Neither the EERA nor a collective bargaining agreement trump the U.S. Constitution,” she said.

In the wake of Janus, the plaintiffs — Kristine Kurk, who works in the employee benefits division of the Los Rios Community College District; and Susan Shroll, who works for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education — attempted last fall to withdraw from their respective unions and cease their dues deductions, but were told their requests had been denied because their union’s CBAs included provisions forcing them to remain members for the duration of the CBA.

In Kurk’s case, she was told she could not opt out of union membership until 30 days before her union’s CBA expires on June 30, 2020 — and informed dues would still be deducted from her paycheck in the meantime.

Shroll was told she couldn’t opt out or cease dues payment until the end of her union’s CBA, on June 30, 2019.

The suit names the Los Rios Classified Employees Association and SEIU Local 620, the unions representing Kurk and Shroll, as defendants. Additional defendants include:

  • the Los Rios Community College District;
  • the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education;
  • Los Rios Community College District Board of Trustees President John Knight;
  • San Luis Coastal Unified School District Superintendent Eric Prater; and,
  • California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“Union membership and dues deduction are voluntary,” Sweigart said. “The defendants are violating our clients’ First Amendment rights by strong-arming them to remain union members and continuing to skim dues from their paychecks without authorization.”

The Freedom Foundation has filed numerous lawsuits in California, Oregon and Washington since the Janus ruling was issued as unions drag their feet rather than comply.

Kurk and Shroll are seeking reimbursement with interest of all dues deducted since their opt-out requests, plus monetary damages and attorneys’ fees. They are also demanding a declaration by the court that members have the right to resign at any time and that the agreements the districts entered into with the unions violate the members’ constitutional rights.