The Freedom Foundation on Jan. 20 filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a class of University of Washington employees whose attempts to exercise their Constitutionally protected right to opt out of union membership and dues are being thwarted by the school and the union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 925.
A nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization based in Olympia, the Freedom Foundation maintains offices in four states and is currently involved in around 60 lawsuits with unions stubbornly resisting compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which affirmed the right of government employees to keep their jobs despite declining union membership and refusing to pay dues.
Charlene Wagner, lead plaintiff in the newest suit, is a fiscal specialist who has worked at UW since 1999. She signed a membership agreement with SEIU 925 when she was hired, having been told union membership was mandatory.
Shortly before the Supreme Court issued its Janus ruling in 2018, union representatives urged Wagner to sign a new membership and dues-authorization form. She questioned why, but the union reps assured her it was merely to bring “uniformity to the membership cards.”
In fact, the new agreement contained several revised provisions, including one that limited opt-out requests to a narrow two-week window coinciding with the employee’s hire date – a provision the old membership card did not contain. SEIU 925 bosses knew that their ability to leverage compulsory fees to induce employees into becoming members would soon come to an end. Not to be deterred in their never-ending quest to fill union coffers, however, these bosses distributed new “membership agreements” to trap employees into paying dues even after Janus in the event employees actually learned of their rights from a third party.
In October 2018, however, Wagner learned of the Janus ruling from a mailer she received from the Freedom Foundation and immediately requested to opt out, only to be told SEIU 925 would continue to instruct the university to deduct dues from her paycheck until she sent in another opt-out request between April 29, 2019, until May 14, 2019.
Wagner refused, knowing that acquiescing to the union’s demands would imply she accepted them, and she emphatically does not.
In addition to the union, Wagner’s lawsuit also names UW as a defendant because the school, as her employer, continues to deduct dues from her paycheck based solely on the union’s word that the deductions are lawful, as the University is required to do under Washington law.
“The whole point of Janus is to protect the First Amendment rights of public employees to not support a labor union,” said Freedom Foundation Senior Litigation Counsel James Abernathy. “State laws that try to limit those rights are unconstitutional regardless of whether they were passed before or after Janus.”
In the case of Wagner, the Freedom Foundation is arguing the dues are being seized under an unconstitutional law that gives the union sole discretion over who the university — a state actor — is and isn’t authorized to deduct dues from.
The Freedom Foundation further alleges a union cannot impose an irrevocability provision, containing a narrow opt-out window, on union nonmembers without a knowing First Amendment waiver.
“The wording of the Janus ruling is unequivocal,” Abernathy said. “We shouldn’t have to keep relitigating the same issues, but SEIU 925 apparently believes it can disregard laws it doesn’t like.
“Maybe that used to be true,” he said. “But it isn’t anymore, and the Freedom Foundation will keep taking them to court and winning until they get the message.”