Univ. of Washington employee sues SEIU over membership opt-out provisions

On Jan. 20, an employee of the University of Washington filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging that her union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 925, had unconstitutionally barred her and other employees from opting out of union membership.

Who are the parties to the suit? The lead plaintiff is Charlene Wagner, a fiscal specialist for the state university system. She is represented by the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit think tank and litigation firm whose self-described mission is “to advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government.” The Freedom Foundation is currently involved in approximately 60 lawsuits concerning public-sector union practices in the aftermath of Janus v. AFSCME. The main defendant is Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 925, which represents about 17,000 education workers in Washington, making it one of the largest public-sector unions in the state. The University of Washington is also named as a defendant.

What is at issue? In October 2018, Wagner sought to opt out of union membership and cancel her dues deduction authorization. SEIU 925 informed her that the membership agreement she had signed limited opt-outs to an annual two-week period (in this case, from April 29, 2019, to May 14, 2019).

Wagner and her attorneys argue that “dues are being seized under an unconstitutional [state] law that gives the union sole discretion over who the university – a state actor – is and isn’t authorized to deduct dues from.” They also allege that “a union cannot impose an irrevocability provision, containing a narrow opt-out window, on union nonmembers without a knowing First Amendment waiver.”

What are the reactions? In a press release, Freedom Foundation Senior Litigation Counsel James Abernathy said, “The whole point of Janus is to protect the First Amendment rights of public employees to not support a labor union. State laws that try to limit those rights are unconstitutional regardless of whether they were passed before or after Janus. … We shouldn’t have to keep relitigating the same issues, but SEIU 925 apparently believes it can disregard laws it doesn’t like.”

As of Jan. 24, neither SEIU 925 nor the University of Washington have commented publicly on the suit.

What comes next? The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It has been assigned to Judge Barbara Rothstein. Rothstein was first appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter (D). The case name and number are Wagner v. University of Washington (2:20-cv-00091).

What we’ve been reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 66 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking.

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Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Union Station status chart January 24, 2020.png

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

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Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of relevant legislative actions taken since our last issue. Bills are listed in alphabetical order, first by state then by bill number.

  • Hawaii SB2770: This bill would require public employers to reimburse unions for costs associated with collective bargaining, contract administration, etc.
    • Introduced Jan. 17 and passed first reading in Senate Jan. 21.
  • Iowa HF2074: This bill requires that negotiations between public employers and employees include terms authorizing dues deduction checkoffs for employees who are union members. This bill also repeals a prohibition on public employers from authorizing or administering dues deductions.
    • Introduced and referred to House Labor Committee Jan. 22.
  • Iowa HF2075: This bill would eliminate statutory language providing for public-sector union retention and recertification elections. It would also make other changes to the laws governing such elections.
    • Introduced and referred to House Labor Committee Jan. 22.
  • Maryland HB214: This bill would grant collective bargaining rights to graduate assistants in the University of Maryland system, Morgan State University, and St. Mary’s College.
    • House Appropriations Committee hearing scheduled Jan. 23.
  • New Hampshire HB1290: This bill would require the state public employee labor relations board to permit employees to vote by mail in certification elections.
    • House Labor, Industrial, and Rehabilitative Services Committee hearing scheduled Jan. 23.
  • New Hampshire HB1399: This bill would allow a bargaining unit to request certification of its union/representative.
    • House Labor, Industrial, and Rehabilitative Services Committee hearing scheduled Jan. 23.
  • New Mexico SB110: This bill would make various amendments to the state’s public-sector labor relations laws.
    • Introduced Jan. 21.
  • Washington HB1333: This bill would alter the definition of a public employee under the state’s public employee collective bargaining law.
    • House Appropriations Committee executive session scheduled Jan. 23.
  • Washington HB2017: This bill would establish collective bargaining rights for administrative law judges. This bill deals with the same subject as SB6224.
    • House Appropriations Committee hearing scheduled Jan. 22.
  • Washington SB6224: This bill would establish collective bargaining rights for administrative law judges. This bill deals with the same subject as HB2017.
    • Senate Labor and Commerce Committee hearing scheduled Jan. 20.



About the author

Jerrick Adams

Jerrick Adams is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

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