William Neely Escaped His Union, But It Wasn’t Easy

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

The Janus ruling was supposed to liberate government employees. Check the fine print.

By Charles Mitchell

William Neely, a state hospital psychiatric aide in Berks County, Pa., had long been frustrated with his union. He felt the leaders of his local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees affiliate were looking out for their own interests, not his. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Janus v. Afscme that government workers could no longer be forced to pay so-called agency fees as a condition of employment, Mr. Neely thought he saw his chance to resign his membership without paying a penalty. Not quite.

In July, weeks after the Janus ruling, Mr. Neely submitted his resignation letter. Receiving no response, he called and emailed union officials, who stonewalled him. Though a union member for more than a decade, Mr. Neely was startled to discover that the fine print of his union’s state contract included a “maintenance of membership” clause preventing him from resigning until a 15-day “window” opened in June 2019.

Undaunted, Mr. Neely sought help from Keith Williams, Pennsylvania outreach director for Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit where I am a board member. Mr. Williams, a former public schoolteacher who educates government workers on their rights, says Mr. Neely’s problem is common. “We regularly hear from union members trapped behind resignation windows,” Mr. Williams says. “It’s the unions’ trump card to keep their hands on workers’ paychecks.”

Before the Janus ruling was handed down, union leaders claimed that losing agency fees would decimate their finances. Others predicted a swift membership exodus and an end to unions’ outsize political influence. The truth is that union leaders are far too savvy to allow a single ruling to destroy their business model in a few months. Janus broke down a major barrier trapping workers who wanted to break free of unions, but other barriers remain. Dismantling them fully will take years.

Post-Janus, government unions nationwide took an immediate and major hit, losing an estimated $120 million in yearly revenue from nonmembers no longer forced to pay agency fees. And the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that public-sector union membership dipped by 49,000 to the lowest unionization rate since 1983. Yet unions remain solvent, and most members are paying their dues, which can run as high as $2,000 annually.

Public-sector unions are resilient, in part because many government workers don’t know their options. Neither the unions nor public employers are required to inform employees of the Janus decision or how to drop their union membership. Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature is reintroducing bills, advanced by the House last year, to notify public employees of their rights.

Union leaders saw Janus coming and found ways to bolster their ranks. In August Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overruled a lower court and upheld Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2015 executive order unionizing 20,000 home health-care workers. Union organizers have also targeted charter schools and state-supported universities, potentially bringing thousands of new members into the government-union fold.

But Mr. Neely’s story is more representative of why public unions in Pennsylvania and other states appear to be weathering the Janus storm. Unions often enforce resignation windows that open only briefly at the end of contracts spanning several years. As a result, many union members will have to wait a long time for their first opportunity to resign.

In states like Pennsylvania where public payroll systems automatically deduct dues from government workers’ paychecks, union members have no choice but to pay up while waiting. Union officials have nothing to lose by stonewalling people like Mr. Neely—the dues will keep flowing for years unless the courts step in.

Left with no alternative, Mr. Neely filed a federal lawsuit in October with the help of the Fairness Center, a public-interest law firm that helps those harmed by government union officials. “My client’s constitutional rights cannot be limited to a 15-day window every three years,” says Nathan McGrath, Mr. Neely’s attorney.

Afscme and Mr. Neely reached a settlement in February, but the maintenance-of-membership rules that trapped him in the union remain in place. Others in similar positions have filed lawsuits in Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. As these cases make their way through the courts, state lawmakers can apply even more pressure by advancing bills like Pennsylvania’s SB 1278, which would allow government workers to represent themselves in contract negotiations, notify workers of their resignation rights, and establish regular union certification elections.

Union leaders will use every trick in the book to keep their grip on power in a post-Janus world. Ensuring workers have the right to resign on their own timelines, not the unions’, is the next major battleground that will turn the tide in the fight for worker freedom.

Mr. Mitchell is president and CEO for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.