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Charles Mitchell: For union members, knowledge is power | TribLIVE.com
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Charles Mitchell: For union members, knowledge is power

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Francisco Molina knows what it takes to overcome adversity. Raised by a single mother from just 3 years old, Molina endured severe abuse. He wore long-sleeved shirts to school to cover the scars from his mother’s beatings.

Such experiences can make or break a person. Molina did not break. Instead, he got stronger.

Molina started a family, earned a degree in human services, and, in 2006, took a job as a social services aide with the Lehigh County Office of Children and Youth to help abused children. He eventually joined the union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 668, and became a shop steward.

While he sometimes held views different from union leadership, Molina appreciated the chance to represent his colleagues and took it on himself to share useful information with them. For example, he once posted the responsibilities of a shop steward — taken from the SEIU’s own handbook — on a workplace bulletin board. After all, knowledge is power.

But Molina soon learned SEIU leaders want to keep power in their own hands. They were none too pleased with his attempts at transparency. The tipping point came a year ago, when SEIU asked workers to sign new membership cards pledging to pay union dues — even if they found another job or stopped being union members. Molina refused to sign the coercive membership card and , in the spirit of transparency, alerted his colleagues to the fine print.

Why was SEIU so eager for members to recommit? For decades, government union leaders have taken a cut of public workers’ paychecks. Even workers who chose not to be union members had to pay a “fair share fee” to keep their jobs. But a lawsuit brought by Illinois government worker Mark Janus was about to change all that.

Just a few months after Molina exposed SEIU’s membership card scheme, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers could no longer be forced to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

Frustrated with how SEIU’s leaders were treating him and his colleagues, Molina quickly sought to act on his newly restored rights and submitted his resignation letter to the union.

SEIU officials rejected Molina’s resignation, citing a contract clause called “maintenance of membership,” which locks workers in union membership for years at a time, and continued taking dues from his paycheck. Molina refused to back down. Then, a few weeks later, he was suddenly dismissed from his job of more than a decade in what he feels was a retaliatory act.

Union leaders may have thought they’d finally bullied Molina into silence. Instead, he raised his voice even louder.

In January, he sued the union, with assistance from nonprofit law firm the Fairness Center, for refusing to let him resign and for unconstitutionally taking his money.

Unfortunately, Molina’s experience isn’t isolated. The Fairness Center also represents a group of government employees from Greensburg in a class-action lawsuit against SEIU over resignation restrictions. And the Liberty Justice Center, the law firm that brought the Janus case, recently filed similar lawsuits on behalf of Philadelphia and Lebanon County public workers.

State lawmakers should fight to remove draconian resignation restrictions and other obstacles standing between workers and their rights. One problem is a simple lack of information. Many government workers don’t even know about the Janus ruling, and union leaders benefit by keeping them in the dark.

That’s why state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York County, has introduced legislation ensuring public workers know their union membership is voluntary, and that they cannot be forced to pay a union as a condition of employment. Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster County, is taking the lead on similar legislation in the state Senate.

Molina is standing up for himself and other public workers because he believes everyone deserves the opportunity to know and act on their rights. That’s the kind of bedrock value every lawmaker, regardless of party, should be happy to support.

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