A right-to-work attorney acknowledged in court on Monday that he’s trying to “change the law” with a lawsuit that challenges the way state government's largest union collects dues.
Precedent does not favor the case brought by a group of state employees who are represented by SEIU Local 1000, but their attorney has taken heart in recent Supreme Court statements that hint at the potential for change.
The case centers on a group of public employees who do not want their dues to support SEIU’s political activities. They argue that the union has created an annual “opt-out” enrollment that leaves them paying money for political actions that they oppose rather than restricting their contributions for bargaining efforts.
In some cases, the public employees did not receive paperwork that would have allowed them to “opt out” of dues for political activities until after the deadline passed for SEIU to change their membership, according to a lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court for Eastern California.
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The union also requires people to “opt out” every year. That means someone who has chosen to not pay full dues once would have to make the same declaration every year.
“Nowhere can we find a compelling state interest for the state controller to take money from people who have said they do not want to be associated with this organization,” their attorney, James Young, an attorney for the National Right to Work Foundation, argued in federal court on Monday.
Jeffrey Demain, SEIU’s attorney, countered that U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have already settled the question of whether public employee unions can renew memberships through an “opt out” system.
He cited a 1992 lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District that permitted the union to employ “opt out” memberships. In May, the Supreme Court also upheld a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allowed the California Teachers Association to charge fees to non-members.
Because the cases stand, Demain argued that a federal judge should dismiss Young’s lawsuit.
“It’s like Mr. Young is swinging for a home run, but he’s not in the right stadium,” Demain said. “He has to get through this court, and then through the 9th Circuit and the Supreme Court, and then he can try to hit his home run.”
Judge William Shub kept the baseball analogy running when he said, “He has to get to bat first, and that’s why we’re here.”
Both sides on Monday asked Shub to issue a judgment ending the case in their favor.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against SEIU Local 1000 in a case that challenged a temporary increase in union fees. The court held that the union did not give proper notice to its members and fair-share payers when it hiked dues.
That case did not explicitly bar unions from using opt-out membership renewals, but the ruling included some statements that suggested to Young that the court would rethink them.
This story was updated at 10:00 a.m. on Feb. 7 to correct SEIU attorney Jeffrey Demain’s quote.