Oregon Live: Liberty Justice Center Threatens Lawsuit in Oregon

An Illinois legal nonprofit has sent cease and desist letters to state and local  officials threatening to sue the state of Oregon, the City of Portland and Portland Public Schools if they don't stop collecting union dues and agency fees from workers' paychecks.

The Liberty Justice Center is a conservative nonprofit that helped represent Illinois child support worker Mark Janus in his landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled in late June that public employees cannot be required to pay unions dues or fees if they opt out of membership.

The decision ended a provision in Oregon and 21 other states that required public employees to pay what's known as "fair share" or "agency" fees as a condition of their employment, even if they opted out of union membership. The fees are supposed to cover bargaining and contract administration, including handling grievances.

Lawyers from the Liberty Justice Center are now pressing their case.

The groups maintain that the court's decision means that public employers should stop collecting all union dues until employees have consented to the deduction and their membership in the union. That consent, they contend, must have been given in the time since the ruling.

"Any previous authorizations for the deduction of dues or fees that employees made before the Janus decision were based on a choice the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional: become a member and pay dues, or pay fees to a union as a nonmember," the letter read, in part. "Any 'consent' based upon that unconstitutional choice was made under duress, not freely given, and is invalid because it does not satisfy the 'clear and affirmative' consent standard established by the Supreme Court in Janus."

That interpretation flies in the face of advice that Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has been providing to state agencies.

Her office sent out an advisory after the court decision that said public employers could no longer deduct agency fees from a nonmember's wages without the employee's affirmative consent, but that employees paying the agency fees may choose to become members.

Otherwise, the advisory said, the Janus decision "does not impact any agreements to pay union dues between a union and its members to pay union dues. Existing membership cards or other agreements by union members to pay dues should continue to be honored."

The interpretation is clearly a big deal for unions. According to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, unions collected nearly $21 million in dues from 25,000 state employees who are union members, and another $5 million in fair share fees from 6,000 state workers who opted out of union membership. The state has stopped deducting fair share fees from non-members' paychecks.

"Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has been clear that 'The Janus decision does not impact any agreements to pay union dues between a union and its members," said Melissa Unger, executive director of the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which represents about 17,000 state workers.

"Anti-worker groups like the Liberty Justice Center and the Freedom Foundation will continue to target SEIU 503 and other labor unions in Oregon because they know our members have strength in numbers, and through that strength, will continue to work toward a just and vibrant society."

The nonprofit group ended its letter: "If you do not comply with this request, we are prepared to pursue litigation both to cease collection of union dues and fees and to recover dues and fees wrongfully taken from workers."