Court: Public employees who leave union can't recover dues

Public employees who leave a union can’t recover back dues, a federal appeals court ruled.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled Wednesday against seven Washington state employees that left their union and were trying to collect paid fees.

The federal appeals court said that a June 2018 Supreme Court’s ruling that barred public employee unions from collecting fees from nonmembers did not give union members a right to resign and recover dues they have already paid.

Neither the union nor the state of Washington, the workers’ employer, violated their First Amendment rights by continuing to collect dues they had voluntarily agreed to pay, the court said.

The Washington state employees dropped out of their branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees after the Supreme Court decision and sought refunds. They and other AFSCME members had promised in April 2018, under a new union membership agreement, to pay dues for the next year. But the seven plaintiffs argued, in a proposed class-action suit, that they signed the agreement without being properly advised of their constitutional rights.

“The First Amendment does not support employees’ right to renege on their promise to join and support the union,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown said in the Ninth Circuit’s 3-0 ruling, the first by any federal appellate court on the issue.

The ruling applies to several similar cases in California, including one from this January in which a federal judge in Oakland denied refunds to schoolteachers who had left their union.

The case is one of a series of efforts by foes of government employee unions to enlarge on the victory they scored in 2018. In the case of Janus vs. AFSCME, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states violated the free-speech rights of workers who chose not to join the unions by requiring them to pay fees to unions for the costs of representing them at the bargaining table. The ruling applied to about two dozen states, including California, that required public employee unions to represent all employees.

Upholding a federal judge’s dismissal of the suit, the appeals court said the former members had not been coerced into remaining in the union or signing the agreement. The court said they could have dropped out in 2018 and paid the lesser fees then charged to non-members, but chose to remain and keep such benefits as discounts on some goods and services, access to scholarship programs and the right to vote on union contracts.