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Want out of your union? Conservative groups are recruiting California public workers for lawsuits

Bethany Mendez was “doubtful” she’d benefit from union membership at the end of the last school year, but she signed up anyway after a series of hard pitches from the California Teachers Association.

Now the special needs educator at Fremont Unified School District wants to make the CTA pay for the pressure she felt.

She’s a plaintiff in one of the 15 lawsuits launched by national anti-union organizations against California labor groups since the Supreme Court last year banned public employee unions from collecting dues from workers who don’t want to join them.

That decision in Janus vs. AFSCME deprived public employee unions of millions of dollars in revenue just as it invigorated a handful of anti-union organizations that saw an opportunity to diminish labor’s power in California.

“Californians are not going to see reform on things like education and pension liability as long as government unions maintain the strength and power that they currently have, that they’ve had for 40 years,” said Bob Wickers, who leads California operations for the Freedom Foundation, the organization supporting Mendez in her lawsuit.

His group has its headquarters in Olympia, Washington. With Janus, it expanded its California footprint with plans to seek out public employees by email and in person.

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Wickers, a former Republican political consultant, said it expects to work in California for years to come. California has about 1.5 million state and local government employees. Until last year, all of them were paying some kind of fee or dues to a union.

“For the first time (unions are) going to have to compete and we’re going to be out there,” Wickers said.

The other primary anti-union organizations operating in the state are the California Policy Center and the National Right to Work Foundation. Michigan-based Mackinac Center has advertised tools to help workers quit their unions in California and sent representatives here, too.

California unions have a well-honed strategy to rebuff the organizations, characterizing them as the faces of a national effort to weaken labor and undermine workers’ power.

“These groups don’t bargain for state workers – or any workers,” said SEIU Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker, who leads the largest union in state government. “They don’t go to the Legislature to fight for workers to have a secure retirement. They don’t come into our communities and work to ensure everyone has affordable housing. Instead, they do one thing – fund multi-million dollar lawsuits that attempt to bankrupt unions.”

Publicly available tax returns show that donations to some of the right-to-work groups surged last year, giving them ammunition to keep unions in court even if the lawsuits don’t have an immediate payoff. They don’t disclose their donors on the tax returns.

They haven’t had much trouble finding workers like Mendez who are unhappy with unions and want out of them.

“The union does not represent all of their teachers,” said Mendez, who is in her second year at Fremont Unified. “They financially endorse individuals and state political agendas that many of their union members do not, yet these members in the minority have to fund it, without a choice.”

Her attorney is Harmeet Dhillon, a free speech advocate and Republican National Committeewoman.

Fair share fees

The Janus decision centered on fair share fees, which unions charged to workers they represented even if the employees did not want to be members. The fees were legal for more than 40 years, and they were intended to cover the cost of negotiating and upholding a contract for everyone who benefited from it.

The Supreme Court in Janus held that unions are political organizations and workers cannot be compelled to support them financially.

In general, the new lawsuits argue that contracts signed before the Supreme Court’s decision are invalid because workers did not know they had an alternative to paying full union dues. They ask courts to compel the unions to reimburse fees to workers.

The cases also demand that unions let their members quit paying dues at any time, ending a common practice in their contracts that allows bargaining units to specify when members can separate.

Unions set those opt-out windows to prevent workers from paying for representation only when they’re in trouble and facing discipline at work.

California state law instructs that employers must defer to unions on opt-out procedures. That means human resources departments direct workers to their unions when they complain about dues deductions from their paychecks.

Some unions after Janus are letting workers quit when they ask. Others are holding firmly to the opt-out procedures in the contract, which could keep disgruntled workers paying dues for years.

“The biggest obstacle is that many of the unions in the state are simply saying, ‘Sorry, you can’t leave,’” said Mark Bucher, chief executive officer of the California Policy Center.

Unions for striking teachers in court

His organization has gathered opt-out requests from a range of local and state unions, including Professional Engineers in California Government, Cal Fire Local 2881 and various SEIU locals. His organization has filed lawsuits against two unions, and Bucher said he anticipates that it will find more cases to take to court.

So far, the anti-union organizations have not scored a significant win. Dozens of cases similar to the California ones are reported to be moving through the courts.

In November, a federal judge in Washington state ruled that unions followed the law when they collected fees from workers prior to the Janus decision, and unions do not have to return them. Last week, an Illinois judge issued a similar decision.

“I think that is a strategy in itself,” said San Francisco State University professor of labor and employment John Logan, referring to the sheer number of anti-union lawsuits. “These cases have not been successful so far, but unions still have to devote resources and time and energy to defending these cases when they could be doing other things — providing services, representation to members, trying to organize non-members, etc.”

The California cases target unions of all sizes. Four challenge the California Teachers Associations, which represents more than 300,000 teachers. Two take aim at UTLA, the Los Angeles teachers union that went on strike for six days in January.

Two more challenge opt-out policies at unions that represent deputy sheriffs and jail deputies in Fresno and Santa Clara counties. Unions representing California State University and community college faculty are facing lawsuits, too.

Two of the smaller state government unions, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, also are in court.

SEIU and AFSCME, two of the largest unions in the country, similarly face lawsuits from anti-union organizations in California.

Eric Soto, president of the union that represents state mental health workers, declined to comment directly on the lawsuit against his organization. He cast it as an assault on workers’ rights.

“This is clearly a continuation of a well funded, well coordinated and sustained effort to cripple and dismantle unions and is an attack on working class families,” he said about the strategy anti-union organizations are using in court.

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Adam Ashton is The Bee’s Capitol Bureau Chief. He leads a team of reporters covering California politics and government. His assignments for The Bee and its sister papers have taken him from Merced to Baghdad since joining McClatchy in 2004.