Three Oregon school employees sued their union in federal court Tuesday, arguing it’s unfair that the union only lets members drop out and stop paying dues during the month of September.
The suit was filed the same day Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that some believe will make it more difficult for public employees to opt out of union membership.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued last June ended a 40-year mandate that public employees join the union that represents them and their co-workers. But three members of the Oregon Education Association say in their lawsuit that they learned quitting their union isn’t so simple.
All three say they missed the “fine print” on the annual enrollment forms they completed that said September is the only window during which they can end their membership and void their obligation to pay dues.
In their suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Medford, Eagle Point school employees Jeremy Durst and Deanne Tanner and Portland Public Schools employee Michael Garcie, who teaches fourth-grade at Cesar Chavez K-8 School, say limiting their ability to drop membership to one month a year violates their Constitutional rights.
Durst and Tanner also sued their local union and Garcie is suing the Portland Association of Teachers and all three are suing their school districts. But the facts laid out in their suit make it clear that officials at the statewide teachers union, headquartered in Tigard, enforce a uniform statewide policy that membership can only be exited in September.
The suit says it’s unfair for the Oregon Education Association to continue to “seize” their dues until then. Garcie is charged about $83 a month, or $992 a year, the suit says. Tanner, who is a secretary, is charged about half that.
The three are represented by the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, which advocates individual liberty and free enterprise and opposes unions.
In a decision known as Janus, the Supreme Court said that the First Amendment prevents unions from compelling public employees to pay dues without their affirmative consent.
Durst and Tanner both signed agreements to join the union last August but now say they didn’t understand their other options. Garcie refused to sign his form last year, the lawsuit says, but was told when he asked in February to end his dues-paying that he would have to pay until the September window opens.
John Larson, an Eastern Oregon high school English teacher who is president of the statewide union, said via email, “We’re following this issue. Today is just the latest event in a long line of frivolous lawsuits the corporate-backed, national anti-worker Freedom Foundation has filed. This fringe group consistently opposes values Oregonians hold and has never lifted a finger to support students, educators, or improve conditions in Oregon classrooms. It’s no surprise they are choosing to insert themselves in the democratic union process of Oregon’s educators ... They see that together in union, educators have power to improve our communities and support students.”
The Oregon House passed a bill Tuesday that some believe will make it more difficult for employees to opt out of union membership. Unions say the bill is critical to protect bargaining and union organizing in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME. The legislation, House Bill 2016, is now on its way to Gov. Kate Brown, who is expected to sign it.
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Unions acknowledge that the bill, dubbed the “Public Workers Protection Act,” is a direct response to Janus. They say it will level the playing field by codifying a number of “best practices” related to filing complaints, release time for union activities, access to worksites and employee information, and dues collection. Currently, unions say, those provisions vary by contract, leaving employee groups without consistent protections and access to resources to function as a union.
“With income inequality widening, the cost of living skyrocketing, and unprecedented attacks on unions, it’s a critical time to protect the rights of Oregon public workers,” SEIU Local 503 President Steve Demarest said. “This bill provides all public employees with basic protections to belong to a union and be free from employer retaliation.”
Opponents believe the bill is a gift from Democrats to their patrons in the public employee unions, one that enshrines in state law a whole range of issues that were previously subject to bargaining.
Janus did not deal directly with the issue of revocation periods — the issue raised in the lawsuit filed Tuesday. However, HB 2016 does. Under the bill’s provisions, an employee’s authorization to deduct union dues remains in effect until the public employee revokes the authorization in the process laid out in their contract.
If the agreement doesn’t specify the procedure, the bill says, then the employee needs to submit an “original signed, written statement of revocation to the headquarters of the labor organization” indicating they no longer wish to pay dues.
If a dispute arises regarding the authorization or revocation for dues deductions, the bill says the dispute needs to be resolved before the state Employment Relations Board. It also limits any liability for the employer and the union to the amount of the unauthorized deductions.
Bill opponents say those provisions could make it even more difficult for employees to opt out of paying dues than it is today. They also worry unions might be able to game the process without facing any penalty.
“The question I have is whether the opt-out procedure becomes so onerous as to be non-functional,” said Scott Winkels, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities.
The lawsuit turns on a more technical question. It essentially says the employees involved didn’t know they had the right to opt out of the union, and didn’t know they’d be obligated to pay dues until September of each year if they decided not to authorize the deductions.
“Going forward our hope is that public employees get clear notice that they don’t have to sign up for union membership, and if they do, that they spell out clearly what they’re signing up for,” said Rebekah Millard, an attorney for the Freedom Foundation, the anti-union group supporting the lawsuit.
House Bill 2016 “puts that burden on employees, and making that burden heavier is ridiculous,” she said. “I’d be very concerned if I was a public employer enforcing something making it harder for an employee to exercise their constitutional rights.”