Connecticut State Workers Sue Union for Back Dues After Key Supreme Court Ruling

September 10, 2018 Updated: October 5, 2018

Two Connecticut state employees filed a class-action lawsuit on Sept. 6 against their local union for previously paid dues, after the Supreme Court ruled that government employees can’t be forced to pay dues as a condition of employment.

The employees, Kiernan Wholean and James Grillo, demand back dues and fees they were forced pay to the state chapter of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 2001, as a condition of employment with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that paying public-sector unions as a condition of employment violates workers’ First Amendment rights.

Connecticut stopped deducting union fees from non-members such as Wholean and Grillo after the ruling, but the employees demand to be compensated by Local 2001 for past fees. They ask the court to make the union return the fees to all employees who were forced to pay since June 13, 2015.

The Connecticut statute of limitations on civil cases limits the damages the workers can claim to fees paid over the past three years or less, according to Alex van Duijn, media coordinator for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), which represents Wholean and Grillo. NRTW is funded by conservative- and libertarian-leaning donors and leads a handful of similar cases in several states.

Local 2001 represents about 10,000 active workers, of whom 682 were non-members in 2017, up from 250 in 2012. The union pulls in about $6 million a year, mostly from dues and fees that range from $300 to $884 a year, according to its 2017 Labor Department filing.

The union called the lawsuit “malevolently motivated” and “completely without merit,” in a Sept. 7 statement, adding it “has complied fully with the Janus decision since it was issued.”

“Prior to that, we collected fair share fees in accordance with 35 years of Supreme Court precedent for the purposes of negotiating and administering contracts, and therefore, we are confident that we will prevail in this matter,” it said.

The Significance of Janus

The Janus decision expanded on the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The 1977 ruling prohibited unions from funding ideological or political causes “not germane to its duties as collective-bargaining representative” with dues and fees of those who object to those causes and are forced to pay unions “against their will by the threat of loss of governmental employment.”

Under this scheme, non-members or objectors to such causes were paying lower union fees or could reclaim part of their fees.

The Janus decision (pdf) went further, arguing that collective bargaining by a government workers union is inherently political because, “in the public sector, core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues.”

The court majority thus overruled Abood and stated that “states and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from nonconsenting employees.”

Unions argued that they would be crippled by the ruling. “Taking away unions’ ability to collect [fees from non-members]—while they are nonetheless required to provide services and representation to nonmembers—would threaten the very existence of unions by weakening their financial stability,” stated the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank partially funded by unions.

The 28 states that already have laws that forbid compulsory union membership or charging fees to non-members indeed tend to have a lower rate of union representation than states that don’t.

The Supreme Court acknowledged this to a degree.

“We recognize that the loss of payments from non-members may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members,” the ruling stated. “But we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received under Abood for the past 41 years. It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment.”

NRTW believes government workers can recover more than $100 million in forced union fees.

The unions also argued that charging non-members is fair because the unions are required to represent all government workers in their spheres, regardless of membership.

But justices pointed out the unions themselves covet the position to exclusively represent all, as it grants them significant power. The government has to negotiate with them exclusively. They may also receive employer information on their members and even have the employer deduct dues from members’ pay.

“Designating a union as the employees’ exclusive representative substantially restricts the rights of individual employees,” the justices stated. “Protection of the employees’ interests is placed in the hands of the union, and therefore the union is required by law to provide fair representation for all employees in the unit, members and non-members alike.”

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