Greensburg-based government workers file suit to leave union
Three Pennsylvania state employees based in Greensburg are suing their union after trying unsuccessfully to resign their membership last year.
The employees, all three of whom work for the state Department of Labor & Industry, say they have U.S. Supreme Court precedent on their side, including last year’s controversial 5-4 decision, Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31.
“Janus does have a significant impact on this case in that we believe a lot of people trying to resign from unions are trying to exercise their Janus rights,” said Nathan McGrath, vice president and director of litigation for the Fairness Center
The Harrisburg-based public interest law firm hopes to turn the lawsuit into a class action of 100 people or more. About 9,000 public sector employees are covered by the three-year contract, he said.
McGrath noted that while Janus dealt specifically with the fees public-sector unions charge nonmembers, the new lawsuit addresses the issue of membership itself.
If membership is necessary for the charging of union fees, then maintenance of membership becomes a paramount concern for unions, he said.
“The membership issue has become a big issue across the country because this is the next step,” McGrath said. “Membership is the next real issue that’s left after (nonmember fees).”
The three plaintiffs – Megan James, William Lester and Angela Pease – tried to resign their membership in the Service Employees International Union, Local 668, in July 2018 but were told they had only a 15-day window to do so, according to the lawsuit.
The current contract, which expires on June 30, states that employees may resign their union membership by sending a certified letter and having it postmarked within the last 15 days of the contract, according to the lawsuit.
Through their lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania, the employees seek to have the court declare their unrestricted right to leave the union, award them a refund of dues deducted after their resignations, and strike down the Pennsylvania law and contract provision authorizing maintenance of membership.
McGrath said the dues amount to $400-$700 a year. All three plaintiffs work as disability claims adjudicators in the department’s Bureau of Disability Determination in downtown Greensburg.
Also named as defendants are Gov. Tom Wolf, Local 668 President Steve Catanese, and Secretary of Labor & Industry W. Gerard Oleksiak.
Although he could not comment on the lawsuit, Catanese said, “What we’re seeing is a lot of anti-worker groups that were just waiting for the Janus case to happen so they could go further into litigation.”
Catanese, a native of Lower Burrell, said not many Local 668 members have asked to leave the union since Janus.
“We feel confident we’ll be OK,” he said. “It’s not the first one of these (lawsuits); it’s not going to be the last.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter .