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).

Click here to learn more.

Additional reading:
Janus v. AFSCME
Public sector union policy in the United States, 2018-present




About the author

Jerrick Adams

Jerrick Adams is a staff writer at Ballotpedia and can be reached at jerrick.adams@ballotpedia.org

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