After being sued by the Freedom Foundation in federal court in July for violating the constitutional rights of 15 Thurston County employees, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees (WSCCCE) has settled the litigation rather than fighting it out in court.
In January, a group of Thurston County employees learned from a colleague they had the ability to resign their union membership and object to paying any more than an “agency fee” to support the union’s representational activity. Dues money paid by union members in good standing is used by union executives to support political and other nonessential activity unrelated to collective bargaining.
WSCCCE collects full dues from all represented workers by default and only permits workers to become agency fee payers during the month of January.
During the 30-day window, nearly 20 county employees turned in the union’s form to resign membership and pay the reduced representation fee.
Instead of immediately directing the county payroll office to lower the dues deduction for the objecting employees, however, WSCCCE responded by initiating four months of harassment and intimidation.
“We followed the union’s guidelines perfectly. There was no justification for them choosing to simply ignore our constitutional rights,” said lead plaintiff Renee Conatore.
“Rather than doing the right thing,” she said, “the union decided to harass and bully us because we didn’t want to pay for their social gatherings and politics.”
In a February letter acknowledging the receipt of the opt-out requests, WSCCCE’s deputy director, J. Pat Thompson, decried the Supreme Court rulings designed to protect workers’ First Amendment rights and neither agreed nor refused to process the employees’ requests.
Later in February, some of the objecting employees attempted to participate in the union’s contract ratification vote but were turned away because they weren’t members in good standing, even though the union was still collecting full dues.
In March, the objecting employees received union cards in the mail certifying their membership in good standing.
After repeated inquiries to the union, the objecting employees were invited in April to a meeting with Thompson. The employees who attended the meeting were informed by Thompson that the union was refusing to honor their requests. Hannah Franks, another union representative, informed the employees that, “We need the money to get our people into office.”
In the weeks that followed, two employees independently reached out to the Freedom Foundation for assistance. After meeting with the employees and documenting the facts, the Freedom Foundation filed suit against the union on behalf of 15 plaintiffs just prior to the 4th of July.
“I simply wanted to contribute my excess fees to the charity of my choice rather than allowing the union to spend the overcharge for me,” Conatore said. “If it hadn’t been for the Freedom Foundation, we wouldn’t have had anywhere to turn.”
Under the terms of the final settlement agreement, WSCCCE not only agreed to repay with interest all of the dues it had illegally collected from the employees since January, but it agreed to pay the Freedom Foundation’s legal costs, which totaled nearly $16,000.
“This situation is a case study in how state labor law fails to protect the First Amendment free speech and association rights of union-represented public employees in Washington,” said Freedom Foundation labor policy analyst Maxford Nelsen.
“Public employees should not have to go through a nine month ordeal just to get their constitutional rights observed,” he said. “But as long as unions are permitted to operate workplace representation monopolies and collect compulsory fees from workers, this kind of abuse is bound to occur. The way to make unions more accountable to their members is by giving workers the choice to freely associate or not associate with labor unions as they see fit.”