Post-Janus, Public Union Fair Share Fee Refunds Pale in Number to New Members

In late July, a woman working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife settled her lawsuit over the return of agency, or fair share, fees collected by the union that represented her even though she was not a dues-paying member.

The plaintiff in this case, the wife of a Republican member of the Oregon state legislature, argued that the Service Employees International Union violated her constitutional rights by supporting her husband’s election opponent. She also claimed that SEIU’s support of candidates who support keeping abortion legal went against her Catholic faith and that the union’s political positions conflict with her own.

The lawsuit against SEIU was filed in April but settled for around $2,200 shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of an Illinois state employee who made similar claims against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Voting 5-4 along ideological lines, the justices decided in Janus v AFSCME that even though state laws prevented public unions from using agency fees for political activities, just collecting the money from nomembers constituted a violation of those employees’ First Amendment rights.

About a week after publication of the Janus decision, a group of public school and community college employees in Orange County, Calif., filed a class action complaint against all the unions for county workers. Two of the named plaintiffs were also involved in the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court case Friedrichs v California Teachers Association, which resulted in a 4-4 nondecision and set the stage for Janus.

A stated goal of the Orange County plaintiffs is to weaken unions by denying them funding.

Regardless of what this and similar lawsuits bring, state and local agencies across the United States have already begun eliminating programs that facilitate the collection of fair share fees. In one major example reported by the Buffalo News, agency fee collection stopped in New York with the first paychecks of July.

According to the newspaper, “In all, 31,000 state workers … will see an end to their agency shop payments.” The projected annual financial impact on unions representing New York public sector workers is $112 million.

AFSCME recognizes the potential threat but does not see it as imminent. Speaking with a columnist for the Champaign, Ill., News-Gazette, a union spokesman said “hundreds of former fee-payers” have become full members while “just a handful” have cancelled memberships. The union official put the ration at 10 joiners to every one leaver.


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