In June, unions around the country lost the ability to collect partial payments from public employees who weren’t members. Now, a group of Oregon workers who had such payments deducted from their paychecks say they should be paid back.
In a move that union foes hope will create financial hardships for Oregon’s largest public-employee unions, 12 public workers filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland on Thursday.
They’re seeking reimbursement for six years’ worth of “fair share” payments they were forced to pay to unions that represented their interests, but to which they hadn’t joined. And they argue all Oregon public employees in the same situation should also be paid back.
“When you’re in the business of forcibly taking money from people, I think this is a risk you run,” said Aaron Withe, the Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. The conservative organization works to undercut the power of public unions, which are a major political force in Oregon.
The new lawsuit has roots in a June 27 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. For decades, public employee unions in Oregon and other states were allowed to take partial dues payments from employees who didn't want to be union members. The rationale behind these payments, sometimes called "agency fees": Unions expended money representing the employees whether they were members or not, and should be reimbursed.
But the court’s decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME found that the forced payments were unconstitutional. As a result, Oregon employers immediately ceased collecting the fees from employees.
Now, the Freedom Foundation and another group, the National Right to Work Foundation, say that’s not enough. They argue employees should be paid back for forced payments dating back six years, well before the Supreme Court ruling.
If they’re successful, they believe Oregon’s largest public employee unions—Oregon AFSCME Council 75, the Service Employees International Union Local 503, and the Oregon Education Association—could be forced to pay back upwards of $10 million.
Withe said Thursday that a series of court cases over the years had sent a steady message that fair-share fees would be found unconstitutional, and that unions should have ceased them voluntarily.
“They should have known years ago … that this was coming,” Withe said.
The 12 plaintiffs in the class-action suit include current and former employees of various state, county, and city departments, along with one plaintiff who works for the Three Rivers School District. But the suit seeks to represent any other public employees who had fair share fees deducted from their checks in recent years.
There’s some precedent for unions paying back such fees, though they haven’t been compelled to do so. In July, SEIU Local 503 settled a lawsuit by an employee of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, seeking to challenge fair share payments.
As part of the settlement, the union paid back two years of fees — nearly $3,000. But the union at the time was also clear that it admitted no wrongdoing.
AFSCME, the SEIU and the Oregon Education Association either didn’t have comments on the lawsuit or didn’t return an inquiry when asked Thursday.
The lawsuit is the Freedom Foundation's latest attempt to kneecap public unions. Since the Janus decision, the group has canvassed union members, letting them know they can cancel their membership and not pay a dime for representation. Union officials have said the effort hasn't hurt their numbers.