Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Government Employees File Suit To Destabilize Oregon Union Payments

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Days before a landmark Supreme Court decision is expected, Oregonians are launching an attack on a large public employee union.

Seven state, county and city employees filed suit in U.S. District Court earlier this week, claiming the state has infringed on their constitutional rights by forcing them to pay for collective bargaining and other services.

The suit was filed against Gov. Kate Brown, the director of Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services and a key public employee union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 75.

The plaintiffs include employees of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Department of State Lands, Oregon State Hospital, Polk County and the City of Salem. Representing them is the right-wing Freedom Foundation, which combats public-sector unions in Oregon, Washington and California.

The gist of the suit mirrors nationwide challenges aimed at reducing the influence of public employee unions, which spend millions on lobbying and political contributions in Oregon. Oregon is one of more than 20 states that require the payments.

The plaintiffs are seeking to unravel state law that requires “fair-share” payments: fees that public employees are required to make to a union that bargains on their behalf, even if they’re not union members. The suit asks a judge to rule those compelled payments violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, to prohibit the payments from being collected in the future, and to award unspecified damages.

“The plaintiffs do not wish to pay this ‘agency fee’ because they do not agree with all of AFSCME 75’s activities, and do not wish to subsidize those activities in any way,” the lawsuit reads. Later it argues: “A public-employee union’s collective bargaining activities are no less political than its lobbying and electioneering activities.”

Representatives for AFSCME did not immediately respond to inquiries about the lawsuit.

The legal action comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31, a case that began in Illinois and makes the same basic arguments against fair-share payments. The Janus case is considered one of the most important currently before the court. And with the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, public employee unions have been bracing for a ruling that does away with fair-share payments

A ruling could come as early as Friday.

Unions around the country have said that an adverse opinion could imperil workers’ ability to organize, but Oregon’s public employee unions have been relatively sanguine, expressing hope that workers will stay committed to membership. In 2016, Oregon ranked eighth among all states for public-sector union membership, at 50.3 percent.

Aaron Withe, the Freedom Foundation’s director for Oregon, said the state’s public-sector unions have made it unduly difficult to opt-out of membership by instituting tight windows of time for doing so.

“What you’re seeing in Oregon is not confidence that their members will choose to stay in the union, but confidence that they will be able to prevent them from leaving,” Withe said Thursday.

If the Supreme Court rules against the unions, Withe believes his group's case will be wrapped up relatively quickly, with a judge issuing a judgment in his clients’ favor and deciding on damages. He said the case was important to file because “it’s really just helping these clients with getting retribution.”

The Freedom Foundation isn’t the only anti-union group challenging Oregon law, either. In April, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation filed suit on behalf of a state employee Debora Nearman. Nearman sued the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which negotiates the contract that dictates how much she is paid.

The lawsuit includes many of the same claims made in challenges nationwide — with one wrinkle. SEIU 503 played a role in launching attacks against the re-election bid of her husband, Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.