State employee brings RICO suit against public sector union

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An Oregon state government employee is suing a labor union under racketeering laws over its refusal to grant her request to opt out of paying dues, claiming the union engaged in a pattern of fraudulent activity that victimized her and other union members.

Staci Trees of Bend, Oregon, who works for the Oregon Department of Transportation, was required to either sign a union membership card or pay an agency fee to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 503 when she was first hired in 2009. But in June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME, disrupting how public-sector unions finance their operations.

The high court held that mandatory union membership, dues, and fees in the public sector are a violation of the employee’s First Amendment rights. In Janus, the Supreme Court overruled Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which held that public-sector unions could collect forced agency fees from nonmembers to finance their collective bargaining activities, without infringing the First and 14th Amendments.

After the Janus ruling, Trees contacted the union and requested her release to allow her to opt out of paying the agency fees.

Following several delays, SEIU finally canceled her membership in December 2020. But Trees was advised by email that the union would continue deducting around $100 a month in dues until at least February 2021 because, under the terms of a new agreement she supposedly signed in 2016, all memberships would be renewed automatically unless the worker opted out during an annual two-week window.

Trees said she has no recollection of signing such an agreement and, when she demanded to see it, she formed the opinion that not only had her signature been forged, but important personal details had simply been made up.

The legal complaint in Trees v. SEIU Local 503 was filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon, by the Freedom Foundation, a national nonprofit watchdog organization specializing in public-sector union abuses. It names SEIU Local 503, the Oregon Department of Administrative Services and its director, Katy Coba, as defendants.

Trees’s case is the first to invoke the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, according to the Freedom Foundation.

“We decided it was finally time to call this what it is and say this is a criminal enterprise,” Freedom Foundation attorney Rebekah Millard told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“If Staci Trees was the only person this had ever happened to, you could conceivably blame it on inefficiency or incompetence, but this isn’t an isolated case.”

“The state law doesn’t actually require the state to verify or to check or even to listen if the employee says, ‘Hey I never authorized this,’” Millard said.

“In Mrs. Trees’s case, her employer literally said to her, ‘We take orders from the union—there is nothing we can do to help you.’”

The foundation is currently in court over four other forgery cases involving SEIU Local 503 and has taken action in more than a dozen total forgery cases involving public-sector unions on the West Coast.

“This is a pattern of behavior,” Millard said. “This is how government unions are responding to Janus—by intimidating employees, lying, or suppressing the truth about their rights, and fighting every single attempt to opt out.”

“And when all else fails, they simply forge their signature on a phony contract, locking employees into new terms they never agreed to.”

Millard said SEIU’s actions contravene both state and federal RICO laws because the union sent out numerous electronic communications that fraudulently claimed Trees authorized deductions she hadn’t.

“It’s time for the courts to recognize these are not isolated instances and take action to hold SEIU 503 accountable,” said Jason Dudash, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director. “And that’s just what this lawsuit is intended to do.”

Andrea Chiapella, communications director for the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, declined to make a statement. “We don’t comment on matters involving pending litigation,” she wrote in an email.

SEIU Local 503 didn’t immediately respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared April 8, 2021, in The Epoch Times.