Anti-union groups are doubling down on attempts to destabilize Oregon’s public sector employee unions, following a landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.
On Tuesday, the Freedom Foundation, based in Olympia, and the Virginia-based National Right to Work Foundation filed suit against two of Oregon’s largest labor unions in an Oregon federal court. The groups are representing 10 plaintiffs who work for a variety of public agencies around the state, but they’re seeking permission to make their case a class-action suit, representing hundreds of employees.
Named as defendants are AFSCME Local 75 and the Service Employees International Union 503, along with seven government entities and Katie Coba, director of the state’s Department of Administrative Services.
At issue is how the unions are treating member dues in the wake of Janus v. AFSCME, a June Supreme Court decision that transformed the rules governing union dues.
Before Janus, public sector unions in Oregon and other states were able to take payments from public employees, regardless of whether those employees were members. The law was rooted in the theory non-member employees should pay something for the benefit of union representation.
But the court ruled that forcing “fair share” payments was a violation of employees’ First Amendment rights. Since the Janus decision, unions are only taking dues from employees who have signed up as members.
The 10 plaintiffs in the new lawsuit represent a subset of those members: employees who decided to rescind their union membership after Janus (a move the Freedom Foundation has been actively encouraging).
The plaintiffs all signed agreements to be members of their respective unions that contained provisions for how they could cancel that membership. The agreements allowed the unions to keep deducting dues from the members’ paychecks for a period of time after they indicated they wanted to stop membership.
For instance, a Western Oregon University employee named Loriann Anderson told SEIU 503 on Nov. 1 that she was resigning her union membership, the lawsuit says. She received a notice back from the union saying “dues deductions cannot be terminated except in the periods set forth” in the membership agreement she signed.
In Anderson’s case, the suit says, that wouldn’t happen until Aug. 19, 2019. The remaining nine plaintiffs have similar stories, albeit with different timelines.
Unions say they include these provisions in their membership agreements to give them financial stability. But anti-union groups say the practice is illegal. In light of the Janus decision, they say, employees need to affirmatively authorize unions to deduct dues before they can do so. An existing membership agreement doesn’t count, the groups argue.
“Defendants’ actions and dues deduction revocation restrictions violate the employees’ exercise of their First Amendment right not to pay moneys to a union without their affirmative consent and knowing waiver of First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit says.
Oregon isn’t the only state where anti-union organizations are making this argument. The Freedom Foundation filed a similar suit in Washington state. The National Right to Work Foundation has filed similar suits in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and California, according to spokeswoman AnneMarie McPherson.
The new Oregon filing is the second suit the Freedom Foundation and National Right to Work foundation have filed against the state’s public unions since Janus. Another, filed in September, seeks reimbursement for non-union members who had fair share fees deducted from their checks before the court ruling.
It’s not clear that either suit will stand up in court. Unions have frequently accused the Freedom Foundation of filing lawsuits in an attempt to eat up union resources. AFSCME Local 75 declined to comment on the new lawsuit. SEIU 503 did not return a request for comment.
“Part of the Freedom Foundation’s strategy is to file frivolous lawsuits to waste union’s time defending themselves in court,” says Peter Starzynski, of the union-backed Northwest Accountability Project, a leading critic of the Freedom Foundation. “This effort has been a monumental failure. Unions in Oregon remain strong as members continue to see better wages and benefits that come from the strength of being in a union.”
Public sector unions and their affiliated political action committees and advocacy groups play a big role in Oregon politics — a big reason why they’re targeted by the Freedom Foundation.
This year, they were among the largest contributors to the successful re-election campaign of Gov. Kate Brown, and served as high-profile opponents to several conservative ballot measures that voters rejected.