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UC Irvine lab worker files lawsuit after union refuses to stop siphoning dues from paycheck

Labor union violated First Amendment rights under Janus, lawsuit alleges

University of California Irvine lab assistant Amber Walker has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the UC system and its labor union, alleging the union refuses to stop collecting dues even though she is no longer a member.

The complaint alleges the University Professional and Technical Employees union deliberately imposed “arbitrary” roadblocks and dragged its feet on paperwork to effectively prevent Walker from cancelling union dues collection during the annual 30-day opt-out window.

The class-action lawsuit argues this violates her First Amendment rights under the landmark 2018 Janus decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled public sector labor unions cannot force non-union members to pay union dues.

Walker, aided by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, seeks to recover dues taken from her and other university employees who’ve tried to leave the union.

The lawsuit also challenges a California statute that gives unions “broad discretion” over the opt-out process. Foundation President Mark Mix said giving unions such power is akin to the fox guarding the henhouse.

“[U]nion bosses clearly value illegally filling their coffers with Ms. Walker’s money over respecting her First Amendment and due process rights,” Mix said in a statement.

The 2018 Janus decision gave public employees the right to decline union membership, ruling dues could only be collected with an “affirmative and knowing waiver” from the employee.

Walker first expressed a desire to leave the union in June of 2020, according to the complaint.

When the designated opt-out window arrived in January of 2021, she sent a letter to UPTE “providing timely notice that she was a nonmember and did not consent to deductions of union dues or fees from her wages,” the lawsuit alleges.

Two months later, UPTE informed Walker via email that, although she was no longer a member, her request to cancel her dues collection could not be processed, that in order to opt out, she needed to provide proper photo identification via mail, the lawsuit alleges.

By the time of UPTE’s email, sent on March 30, the 30-day opt-out window had passed. As a result, the union continued to deduct dues from Walker’s paychecks, with expressed intent to do so until the next opt-out window in January 2022, according to the complaint.

But the ID requirement was “mentioned nowhere” on the union’s dues deduction card she had previously signed, the lawsuit alleges. Mix said the ID requirement was “pulled out of thin air.”

“They created this [photo requirement] to block workers from exercising their Janus rights, safe in the knowledge that California’s union dues policies would stifle any chance a public worker has of getting his or her employer to stop seizing dues money for the union,” Mix said.

UPTE did not respond to The College Fix’s requests for comment. The UC system and UC President Michael Drake also did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed July 29.

“The University deprives Walker and similarly situated employees of their liberty and property interests without due process of law by granting a self-interested and biased party, UPTE, control over whether the University takes monies for union speech from employees’ wages,” the lawsuit alleges.

To Walker, it seems the university let UPTE “get away with it.”

“The [University of California] is leaving me helpless against these union officials who just seem to want to take my money despite the fact that I clearly don’t want to be part of the union,” Walker wrote in an email to the LA Times’ Daily Pilot. “I … should have a choice when it comes to supporting a union.”

Walker is receiving free legal aid from the National Right to Work Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit known for union-abuse cases. The foundation was one of two legal teams to represent Mark Janus in his landmark 2018 lawsuit.

According to foundation Vice President Patrick Semmens, this isn’t the first time a Janus precedent has been allegedly disregarded.

“Union bosses have a long history of ignoring limits on their power, especially when it comes to extracting dues from workers,” Semmens wrote to The College Fix in an email. “In some ways, the boldness of the scheme in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Janus precedent ought to make it easier to win.”

The foundation states it has handled over 40 Janus enforcement cases, with dozens more currently being litigated. The group is currently petitioning the Supreme Court to accept two cases challenging similar union “escape periods.”

These periods “restrict the time in which public employees can stop financial support of an unwanted union,” according to a foundation news release.

One case, brought on behalf of Chicago educators, contests a month-long opt-out window similar to UPTE’s. The other window, in a case filed by New Jersey educators, lasts just 10 days each year.

To Semmens, these cases “indicate that public sector union bosses are more concerned with their own power and influence than they are with respecting the individual rights of the workers they claim to ‘represent.’”

“Unfortunately, this is hardly a unique situation,” he told The Fix.

MORE: Janus ruling expected to weaken, not destroy, faculty labor unions

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Grace Bureau is a student at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she is pursuing a degree in communication studies with minors in political science and English. She recently interned for the Center of the American Experiment.