Read before signing: Fearing Janus case, unions try to trap workers into dues payments

By Steven Greenhut
February 13, 2018

Sacramento — With the end of mandatory unionization on the horizon thanks to an expected U.S. Supreme Court decision, the nation’s public-sector unions are trying a variety of tactics – some laudable, others sleazy – to maintain their large ranks of dues-paying members and massive war chests.

On the laudable side, some unions have talked about revamping their organizations to better cater to the needs of their members. Good for them. But others are taking a sleazier approach, by lobbying lawmakers for special privileges such as the right for unions to lobby workers in official workday presentations. California has passed such a law.

The California Policy Center has found another troubling tactic. Government union employees across the country have received a new “membership application” that locks workers into paying union dues well into the future – even if they later resign from the union or are no longer required to belong. The fine print is buried deep within the application.

For instance, an application for Teamsters 856, which represents 12,000 public- and private-sector freight checkers and clerical employees throughout Northern California, is distributing an agreement that has the usual pro-union language. “Yes! I want to stand with my co-workers and become a member … to build power at the bargaining table and strength in the workplace.”

We’d expect anyone who would sign this to support the union’s goal that “everyone represented by our union should pay their fair share to support our union’s activities.” But then there’s this line in the application: “If I resign my union membership and the law no longer requires nonmembers to pay a fair share fee, I nevertheless agree voluntarily to contribute my fair share by paying a monthly service fee in an amount equal to monthly dues.”

The agreement renews automatically on the anniversary of the date signed. The only “out” is for the worker to send the union a revocation letter postmarked between 75 and 45 days before the automatic annual renewal rate. This is typical of the applications we’re seeing.

In another example, the California State University Employees Union, which is part of the Service Employees International Union Local 2579, is distributing a “power in numbers” application that authorizes employees to voluntarily accept membership in the union. Later in the application, it likewise stipulates that the dues payments are “irrevocable unless I revoke it” by sending a written notice to the union within 30 days of the automatic renewal.

This is trap language, the sort of provision that traps an employee into paying dues unless they affirmatively opt out during a small, annual window of opportunity. Some union members who have tried to stop paying the portion of their dues used for political purposes have complained of the difficult time they have in forcing unions to abide by their opt-out requests. Obviously, unions have no incentive to let a dues-payer go.

Similar trap language also is found in applications in New York, but are meaningless under New York state law because “government workers who voluntarily join a union have been able to withdraw from union dues deduction ‘at any time’ simply by notifying their employer,” reports Kenneth Girardin, an analyst with the Empire Center for Public Policy. That’s why the top priority for New York’s unions this year is Senate Bill 5778, which “would supersede that, letting workers withdraw ‘only in accordance with the terms of the signed authorization,’” he wrote.

The dues issue centers on the case known as Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is expected to have far-reaching consequences for public-sector unionization in states such as California and New York that don’t have right-to-work laws. Under current law, which dates back to the 1977 Abood decision, public employees need not be members of unions, but must pay dues for collective-bargaining purposes. Abood made it possible for these public employees to demand a refund of any part of their dues the union used for explicitly political purposes. Guess who determines what‘s “political”? Union leaders.

In Janus, an Illinois municipal worker argues that all mandatory dues payments – even those taken for bargaining-related purposes – are a violation of his First Amendment right of free speech. The argument is that all of the union’s spending is inherently political. For instance, if the union secures higher pension benefits for its members, that means there is less money available for other public services. If a teachers’ union gains extra protections for its members, that affects the ability of public schools to fire and reassign underperforming teachers. It’s all political. Everything the union does have public-policy implications involving public money.

A previous case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, addressed the same issue, but the court deadlocked 4-4 in 2016 after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. With conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch replacing him, the vast majority of court observers expect a decision that will limit or end mandatory union dues collections. Therefore, unions are going to great lengths to trap people into committing to ongoing dues payments.

When government employees receive forms like the SEIU and Teamsters recurring-billing agreements in the mail, will they understand that a signature is likely to forfeit some of their future rights? “It’s an effort to stop people from exercising their Janus rights before they know they have Janus rights,” Girardin told me.

If union membership is as valuable to government employees as the applications suggest, then unions should just level with their potential members about their future choices rather than try to trap them into making continued payments. To do otherwise is sleazy.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor to the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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