I do not often get the chance to write about labor issues. My full time job is with the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm that offers free legal help to those hurt by public sector union officials. It is important that readers know I am not an attorney. Thanks for reading.
Not everyone wants to be a union member — and according to the Supreme Court, public-sector workers have a constitutional right to refuse union membership without penalty. Bizarrely, though, for those who have already joined a union, leaving can take years or be effectively impossible.
John Kabler Jr. is a Pennsylvania liquor store employee who was misled into thinking that his union membership with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) was a job requirement. After years of UFCW forcibly taking money from his paycheck, he realized he could simply resign — but the union used a restrictive red-tape ploy called an “escape window” to prevent him.
That’s when I met John — he contacted the Fairness Center, the nonprofit public-interest law firm where I work as the Director of Communications. The Fairness Center’s legal team helped him sue UFCW for the right to resign immediately. He took a principled stance that has already inspired other government employees suffering union coercion: “My First Amendment rights should not be limited to a fifteen-day period. My case is about the constitutional right to free association.”
In Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and at least 30 other states, unions have trapped employees into union membership. State laws or union contracts often include language that restricts members from leaving except for a narrow window of time, sometimes a period of as few as fifteen-days once every three to five years. Courts sometimes refer to it as an “escape window.” All over America, employees like John are having their constitutional rights violated.
In John’s case, he was told he had to join the union, or he would lose his job. At his mandatory orientation, he was bullied into accepting union membership. The union even sent him a letter stating he could not work without joining the union. After he learned that the union couldn’t lawfully prevent him from working if he didn’t join, the union still kept him trapped in membership for years, continuing to take money from his paycheck.
In 2020, American workers are less likely than ever to join a union — membership numbers continue to drop because twenty-first century workers value flexibility and autonomy. Meanwhile, the percentage of public employees in union membership has remained steady — in part, because employees like John aren’t allowed to leave.
No court has yet officially ruled that these obstacles violate the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME ruling, so only a handful of unions have been forced to drop the limiting provisions. However, John’s lawsuit forced his union to drop resignation restrictions in their latest collective bargaining agreement. His principled stand paid off for him and for thousands of his colleagues. He’s no longer a member of the UFCW and the union returned every cent he ever paid them — with interest.
John Kabler’s story is all too common: employees forced to pay union dues without learning the truth that they have a right to opt out. Far too many haven’t had John’s happy ending. John would tell you that, for him, the union abandoned its stated purpose, preferring to focus on dues collection rather than fighting for employees’ interests. Public employees deserve better.
Employees who want to join a union should be able to do so. Employees who want to leave a union deserve the same courtesy. Tricking employees into joining and acting against their best wishes leaves employees like John Kabler with no option but litigation.
Employees are asking for transparency, fairness, and honesty. That’s not a high bar — public-sector unions should restore public faith in their value by trying to meet it.