Former social worker sues Lehigh County, union
He wants dues that he says were collected against his wishes.
A former Lehigh County social worker filed a federal lawsuit against the county and his former union Monday, claiming they violated his rights by continuing to collect union dues against his instructions.
Francisco Molina, who worked in the county’s Office of Children and Youth Services, claims the county owes him a month worth of dues payments after he tried to quit Service Employees International Union Local 668 last July.
Molina was a supporter of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which found nonunion employees should not be forced to pay partial union dues. Molina, a former shop steward with the union, publicly criticized union leadership at county commissioners meetings last year, claiming union officials harassed him at work.
About three weeks after the Janus ruling, Molina submitted a letter to Lehigh County and SEIU Local 668, resigning from the union and instructing the county to stop deducting dues from his paycheck, according to the suit. But SEIU did not respond to his request, and the county continued to dock the dues from his pay, according to the suit.
Under the terms of the union’s four-year collective bargaining agreement with the county, union members were only allowed to resign from the union during a 15-day period before the contract expired. The contract can force members to remain part of the union for years at a time, depending on the length of the contract.
Molina is seeking the return of a month’s worth of dues payments plus interest. The suit did not provide a dollar figure for that amount.
But the case is more about the principle than the finances, said David Osborne, Molina’s attorney and the president of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit organization that specializes in cases against public sector unions. Forcing employees to remain members of a union they no longer support violates their rights under the First and 14th amendments, Osborne argued.
“To me, it’s just really simple. Mr. Molina was a public employee. They should have the right to be a member of the union and the right to leave a union,” he said.
The Fairness Center has taken on similar cases, including a psychiatric aide’s at Wernersville State Hospital in Berks County. In that case, AFSCME Council 13 refused to honor the man’s resignation from the union last year.
SEIU’s collective bargaining agreement with Lehigh County also allows the union to demand the county discharge any union member who refuses to pay dues, according to the suit.
Molina was dismissed from the county in August, about a month after he requested the county stop docking his dues payment. The suit does not contest his termination.
Named as defendants in the suit are the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners, Executive Phillips Armstrong, Director of Human Resources Judith Johnston, the Lehigh County Office of Chidren and Youth Services, SEIU Local 668 and Stephen Catanese, the local’s president.
Lehigh County Director of Administration Ed Hozza declined to comment, saying the county had not yet been served with the suit. Local 668 did not make a spokesperson available to comment.
Johnston declined to answer questions about how many county employees requested their union dues payments stop, citing the litigation.
A Morning Call report last week found few departures from teachers unions across the Lehigh Valley. However, Michael Torres, a senior communications officer of the freemarket think tank Commonwealth Foundation, expected the number of departures to grow in the future as employees become more familiar with their rights.
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