At the end of March 2020, the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed five forgery lawsuits against local chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California, Oregon, and Washington. According to Freedom Foundation, local SEIU chapters have been forging signatures of state employees on union documents, including membership cards, to justify collecting union dues from their wages.
The Freedom Foundation’s chief litigator Eric Stahlfeld stated, “These individual employees are completely unrelated but, taken collectively, they demonstrate a pattern or practice of the union cutting corners in a desperate attempt to retain members.”
Card Check Forgery
This practice hinges on the union practice of card checks, or using documents such as a signed membership cards to establish that state employees have agreed to union representation. The National Labor Relations Board uses the number of agreements or signatures to measure employee support of a union. Union chapters use signed membership cards to monitor the number of members and to identify from whose paychecks to deduct union dues and fees. However, these lawsuits against the SEIU demonstrate how easily a union can inflate its membership numbers through more deceptive means, such as forgery.
In a recent lawsuit, Jill West, a state employee in the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services, alleges her signature was forged. In October 2019, she attempted to resign her membership in the SEIU 503 local branch but was informed of a requirement to pay dues through August 2020 because of a signed membership card on file. The lawsuit continues that after seeing a screenshot of her electronic signature and seeking legal advice from the Freedom Foundation, she discovered that the membership form was signed from an IP address in Tacoma, WA, using an email address she had never used. According to the Freedom Foundation’s website, West’s case is one of 12 forgery lawsuits that Freedom Foundation has taken up since 2019.
The Janus Decision
In the case of Jill West and other state workers involved within these lawsuits, SEIU chapters failed to notify nonmembers that they cannot be forced to pay union dues per the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, et al. The Court ruled, “States and public-sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from non-consenting employees.” It further stated, “Neither an agency fee nor any other payment to the union may be deducted from a nonmember’s wages, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay [the union].”
The plaintiff in Semerjyan v. SEIU 2015, another lawsuit filed by the Freedom Foundation, is a homecare provider in Los Angeles since 2003. She believed it was mandatory for SEIU 2015 to withdraw dues from her wages even though she was not a union member. Following the Janus ruling, Semerjyan filed an opt-out letter in October 2019 and demanded they halt withdrawing dues but was informed by the chapter that they had a membership card with her signature and thus would not permit her to opt-out until March 2020. After receiving a copy of the union card at her request, she claimed that it was clearly a forged signature on the card.
One lawsuit ended on May 29, 2019, when the SEIU 775 union chapter made an out-of-court settlement with Cindy Ochoa, a Washington state homecare provider that left the chapter in 2014. In her lawsuit, filed on October 2018 with the help of the Freedom Foundation, Ochoa sought compensation for lost wages and emotional distress due to her signature being forged on a membership card in 2016 and union dues having been removed from her checks. Her initial decision to leave the chapter followed a U.S Supreme Court decision in Harris v Quinn in 2014. The Court ruled that nonunion homecare providers could not be forced to pay union dues. In the settlement, SEIU 775 agreed to pay Ochoa $15,000 in damages, pay $13,000 to the Freedom Foundation to cover legal fees, and provide a handwritten apology to Ochoa.
An “Inherently Unreliable” System
Such instances of nonunion members having their signatures forged as well as the unions’ failure to inform employees of their rights under Janus underscore some problems with the union card check system. The Supreme Court had expressed concerns with the practice in NLRB v. Gissel Packing in 1969, commenting that card checking was “inherently unreliable” due to the “natural inclination of most people to avoid stands that appear to be nonconformist and antagonistic to friends and fellow employees.”
On June 3, 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton dismissed a lawsuit by California homecare provider Maria Quezambra with the assistance of Freedom Foundation against the United Domestic Workers of America. Quezambra claimed her signature had been forged on a union membership card and was compelled to pay dues despite not being a member of the union, arguing her First Amendment rights had been violated when the state deducted the dues from her wages. Judge Staton rejected Quezambra’s argument, ruling “the union cannot be fairly characterized as a state actor” and “the California state officials and Orange County are not responsible for the specific conduct of which Quezambra complains.”
These lawsuits indicate that the practice of using card checks to monitor union membership is flawed and enables unions to manipulate unsuspecting state employees. This is apparent in these SEIU chapters purportedly engaging in fraud to maintain the flow of union dues, but the number of forgery lawsuits being filed by the Freedom Foundation seems to indicate that workers are pushing back. However, Judge Staton’s ruling suggest many legal hurdles lie ahead.