Washington State SEIU Affiliate Settles Suit Over Forged Signature

Service Employees International Union Local 775, it seems, would do anything for a buck, including collecting dues from a former member. It’s now learned its limitations. On March 29, the Seattle-based union reached an out-of-court agreement with a Spokane home caregiver, Cindy Ochoa, following its admission that one of its canvassers had forged her signature on a membership card. Ochoa, with the help of a nonprofit legal group, the Freedom Foundation, had filed a lawsuit in federal court in October alleging the union had violated her First Amendment rights, unlawfully withheld part of her wages, and caused emotional distress. Local 775 agreed to pay $15,000 in damages to her and $13,000 to the foundation to cover legal fees, plus send her a written apology.

SEIU Local 775 represents more than 45,000 long-term health care providers in Washington State and Montana, many of them operating out of their homes on behalf of family members. One of them was a Spokane woman named Cindy Ochoa who had grown dissatisfied with her representation. A June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Harris v. Quinn, gave her the means of exit. The Court ruled in that Illinois case that nonunion private-sector home care workers could not be forced to pay “fair share” dues to a public-sector union simply because some or all of their wages are derived from a state-run Medicaid program. Not long after that ruling, Ochoa left the union. Yet the union continued to deduct dues from her paycheck. She wondered how that could be. The reason, it turned out, was that in 2016 a union representative had visited her home and pressured her to rejoin. Though Ochoa refused, the canvasser had signed her name on a membership card and turned it into the union. And the union, with seemingly willful blindness, assumed the signature was legitimate.

Meanwhile, the dues deductions from Ms. Ochoa’s paychecks resumed. She attempted to persuade the union to end the deductions via phone and mail, but to no avail. Then she contacted the Olympia, Wash.-based Freedom Foundation in early 2018. The foundation, which has handled numerous worker liberty cases over the years, contacted SEIU Local 775 and insisted the collections cease. Union officials admitted the signature on the membership card was not that of Ochoa, and soon stopped the deductions. Yet less than a month later for unspecified reasons, the union resumed its dues deductions. In response, the foundation last October filed a suit in U.S. District Court seeking monetary compensation for lost wages and emotional duress. The union settled on March 29. So eager was the union to get this case out of its hair that it invoked an order of judgment, effectively conceding the loss of confidentiality in the settlement.

This case may be an extreme example, but it underscores a common tendency on the part of public-sector unions to employ deception against reluctant workers.  That the Supreme Court ruled against public-sector union monopoly power in Harris v. Quinn in 2014, and then more comprehensively in Janus v. AFCSME last year, appears not to have fazed certain unions. Hopefully, this settlement will serve as a brake against organized labor’s zeal for revenues without regard for the law. In the end, the decision to pay union dues is up to the individual worker.