Judge orders rebate for non-union state workers
By John Hill - jhill@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

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A federal judge has ordered the state's largest public employee union to repay as many as 28,000 non-union state workers who were not given a chance to challenge a 2005 dues increase to fight initiatives backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Judge Morrison England, in a decision Thursday, ordered Service Employees International Union Local 1000 to send notices to the workers who opted out of union membership. The union must issue refunds, with interest, to those non-union members who object to the special assessment. The rebate would amount to $135 plus interest for a worker who made $4,500 a month in 2005.

The special fee raised $12 million to fight Schwarzenegger's agenda, about a quarter of which was paid by state workers who chose not to join the union.

One Schwarzenegger-backed initiative would have required public employee unions to get written permission from members to use dues for political purposes. Another would have given governors broad budget-cutting powers.

"This is an opportunity for the state employees to reclaim the special assessment money that was taken from them unlawfully and used to advocate political causes they might disagree with," said Justin Hakes, spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Virginia, which provided legal advice to the state workers who sued.

Jon Jumper, a tax auditor for the state Employment Development Department in Anaheim, said he signed onto the lawsuit when he found out about the special assessment from a co-worker.

"I'm tickled," he said. "I can't stand the union." He said the union does little to help state workers, while bolstering its own budget with dues.

Jim Zamora, a spokesman for SEIU Local 1000, said the union representing 92,500 state workers was "very disappointed" with the decision.

"We don't know exactly how much this may cost us," he said.

The union has not yet decided whether to appeal, he said.

"We feel it's a bad decision," Zamora said. "It really hurts free speech" and the union's ability to respond to issues that affect its membership.

Federal case law has established that workers who opt out of union membership have a constitutional right to block the union from spending their dues to contribute to candidates or express political views.

In 2005, the union issued an annual notice describing how union dues would be spent in the coming year and giving non-union employees the chance to challenge being charged for activities not related to the union's costs of representing them in collective bargaining.

The notice did not mention the special assessment. But in July, the union proposed a fee of 0.25 percent, on top of the normal 1 percent of salary, to pay for television and radio advertising, direct mail and other actions to defeat the Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives. The fee was called "an Emergency Temporary Assessment to Build a Political Fight-Back Fund."

The union also said that it would use the extra money to fight an expected attack on public employee pensions in 2006 and to elect a governor and legislators who supported them.

One worker called the union's Sacramento office to object, and was told that he would have to pay because "we are in the fight of our lives," according to England's decision. He was eventually joined by eight other workers in the suit against the union.

The state controller began deducting the special fee from paychecks in September 2005. For a worker making $4,500 a month, the fee meant an additional $11.25 in dues.

England at first issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the deductions. But in November 2005, days before the election, he decided not to issue a preliminary injunction, which would have barred the special assessment until the lawsuit was resolved.

The union now has two months to send out a proper notification of the 2005 assessment. Workers who are not members of the union will then have 45 days to object to the fee and get refunds.