SEIU Local 503 representative says union will investigate allegations
EUGENE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Staci Trees, a Deschutes County resident and ODOT employee, isn’t the first Oregon public worker to file suit against her union over its alleged refusal to grant her "opt-out" request.
"Nor is hers the first instance of the union clearly forging a signature on a membership form so it could continue to confiscate dues from a worker who no longer wanted to pay," the Freedom Foundation said in a news release Tuesday.
But the foundation said Trees’ case is the first to invoke the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, alleging the union engaged in a pattern of fraudulent activity victimizing both her and other union members.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Eugene by the Freedom Foundation, which describes itself as "a national nonprofit watchdog organization specializing in public-sector union abuses."
It names Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 503, the Oregon Department of Administrative Services and its director, Katy Coba, as defendants.
Trees, employed by the Oregon Department of Transportation, was required to either sign a union membership card or pay an agency fee to SEIU 503 when she was originally hired in 2009.
But in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Janus v. AFSCME that mandatory union membership, dues and fees in the public sector are a violation of the worker’s First Amendment rights, the Freedom Foundation said.
Within a month, Trees contacted the union and requested her release.
After numerous delays, SEIU 503 finally canceled her membership last December. But Trees was informed in an email that the union would continue deducting around $100 a month in dues until at least February 2021 because, under the terms of a new agreement she signed in 2016, all memberships would be renewed automatically unless the worker opted out during an annual two-week window.
Trees, however, couldn’t remember signing such an agreement and, when she demanded to see it, not only had her signature been forged, but important personal details had simply been made up, the lawsuit claims.
“If Staci Trees was the only person this had ever happened to, you could conceivably blame it on inefficiency or incompetence,” said Freedom Foundation attorney Rebekah Millard. “But this isn’t an isolated case.”
The Freedom Foundation said it is currently litigating four other forgery cases involving SEIU 503 in Oregon and has taken action in more than a dozen total forgery cases involving public-sector unions on the West Coast.
“This is a pattern of behavior,” Millard said in a news release. “This is how government unions are responding to Janus — by intimidating employees, lying or suppressing the truth about their rights and fighting every single attempt to opt out.
“And when all else fails,” she said, “they simply forge their signature on a phony contract, locking employees into new terms they never agreed to.”
Millard said SEIU’s actions violate both state and federal RICO laws because the union issued numerous electronic communications that fraudulently claimed Trees authorized deductions she didn’t.
Moreover, the complaint cites four other current lawsuits in which it's alleged the SEIU 503 engaged in similar behavior against other Oregon public employees.
“It’s time for the courts to recognize these are not isolated instances and take action to hold SEIU 503 accountable,” said Jason Dudash, the Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director. “And that’s just what this lawsuit is intended to do.”
SEIU Local 503 Communications Director Ben Morris told NewsChannel 21, "We cannot comment on the details of pending litigation."
However, he also provided this statement:
"Our organization processes around 18,000 membership applications every year and we have a stellar track record of accuracy. We take these allegations very seriously, and we will conduct a full investigation of the events that took place with this individual."
"During the COVID-19 crisis and the wildfires, SEIU 503 members masked up, did their essential jobs, and kept Oregon running.
"The Freedom Foundation uses the legal system as a weapon to advance the agenda of their corporate funders by attacking organizations like SEIU 503 who fight for workers on the front lines. The Freedom Foundation is not what our communities need right now."
Peter Starzynski of the Northwest Accountability Project called the lawsuit "part of a broader, failing effort to destroy unions in the Pacific Northwest."
"Essentially, they want to destroy unions, as they view them as an obstacle to electing far-right candidates," he said. "They use people like the plaintiff in this lawsuit as pawns in that endeavor."