Keith Williams: How 3 workers fought union coercion — and won
It’s not every day that ordinary Pennsylvanians willingly disrupt their lives to stand up for their constitutional rights. Even rarer is achieving an impact that affects thousands of people in just a few short months. But that’s exactly what three Greensburg state employees accomplished this year.
Megan James, William Lester and Angela Pease work for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and, like nearly all state employees, are represented by a union. They had long been frustrated with the services provided by their union, SEIU Local 668, but had no choice but to pay up: Dues or fees were mandatory for union members and nonmembers.
To stop paying the union, they’d have to quit their jobs.
Then, in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers could no longer be forced to pay a union. For most Americans, that’s common sense — the First Amendment protects individuals from being forced to fund an ideological or political group against his or her will.
Soon after the court ruling, the trio sent in letters resigning their SEIU membership, thinking they were finally free from coercion. But union officials had other ideas. The SEIU rejected their resignations, saying the workers must remain members until their contract expired a year later.
According to the union, members could leave the union only during the 15-day window defined in their multiyear collective bargaining agreement. This rule, called “maintenance of membership,” is authorized in state law and appears in most public-sector employment contracts. It traps thousands of government workers in unions across Pennsylvania.
At this point, James, Lester and Pease could have given in and paid hundreds of dollars in union dues for another year. Instead, they stepped out of their comfort zones and fought for the rights the Supreme Court restored to them.
They contacted public-interest law firm the Fairness Center and filed a class-action lawsuit in January on behalf of themselves and 9,000 other SEIU Local 668 members for the right to leave the union at any time. Though the wheels of justice turn slowly, they’ve already won a major victory. Because of pressure brought by the lawsuit, in June, the union agreed to stop enforcing resignation restrictions.
The Greensburg workers succeeded in bringing the promise of the Janus decision home to thousands of their colleagues. But this newfound freedom applies only to one of Pennsylvania’s many government unions. Tens of thousands of other workers remain trapped in unions, and many are still fighting to escape.
After Janus, the major government unions in Pennsylvania and across the nation are clamping down and trapping workers into paying dues as long as possible, prompting lawsuits in Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere.
If you ask government workers, they’ll gladly tell you what they want from union membership — a focus on local issues, not the agenda of distant state and national union executives.
As three Greensburg workers proved, workers can band together, stand up to union coercion and win. Union officials have a choice: adapt and survive or hold onto the past and see members and local unions slip through their fingers. Which will they choose?
Keith Williams is director of outreach for Pennsylvania at Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit organization helping public-sector workers exercise their constitutional rights.