Issues & Insights

How My Union Trapped And Deceived Me, And Why I Sued

Being a liquor store clerk in one of Pennsylvania’s state-owned Fine Wine & Good Spirits shops is an enjoyable job. I have great coworkers, great customers, and sell great products. But the job came with baggage I didn’t expect: union officials who misled me and took my hard-earned money.

This Labor Day, it’s worth shining light on how my union officials do business and exposing the obstacles they put between me and my constitutional rights.

During mandatory orientation, I had the displeasure of meeting a union representative who delivered “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” She spoke about her belief in the perceived virtues of solidarity and the value of belonging to the union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1776. I was given a membership form that had been pre-filled with my information.

When I expressed my anger with being forced to join, she made it clear I had two options: Sign the form to join the union — or find another job.

In addition to the union representative’s direction, I received another message from the higher-ups — this time in writing. UFCW Local 1776 President Wendell Young IV sent me a letter that could not have been clearer.

“It is a condition of employment with this company that you become a member in good standing with Local 1776,” he wrote.

Here was my mistake: I believed them. I did not want to join the union but, based on what they said, I thought I had to join to keep my job.

What wasn’t explained to me when I was handed that membership form was that, for decades, it’s been illegal to force employees to become union members as a condition of employment. What Young told me contradicted longstanding law.

Meanwhile, UFCW Local 1776 took in $21 million in 2018, nearly all of it dues and fees from workers such as myself.

As a part-time liquor store clerk, I often earn less than $200 per week. Every hard-earned dollar means a great deal to me, but the union took money from my paycheck for years, even though I never wanted to support the union. For a long time, it seemed impossible for me to stand against the union behemoth.

Then, in June of last year, I heard about a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed union “fair share” fees for non-union public employees. The Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31 ruling meant that if I had not been coerced into joining the union, I wouldn’t have had to pay UFCW Local 1776 another dime.

At that point, I decided to resign my union membership, so that I no longer had to financially support a union that I never supported to begin with. Not surprisingly, the union saw things differently. Because Pennsylvania law has a “maintenance of membership” provision — which I believe is unconstitutional — the union and my employer can limit my resignation period to a 15-day escape window at the end of my multiyear contract.

After deceiving me to get me to join, they were now trapping me in membership.

With my back against the wall, I had no choice but to take legal action to protect my rights. The Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm that represents me at no cost, helped me file a federal lawsuit in March. A union’s ability to retain unwilling members is a topic that must be addressed by the courts. Nationwide, more than a dozen lawsuits have been filed to address these arguably unconstitutional statutes and contract provisions that limit employees from escaping unwanted union membership.

Public employees should get honest information about union membership from unions and their employers when they are hired. I wouldn’t have had to file a lawsuit if I hadn’t been misinformed in the beginning.

At the end of the day, I want my rights to be respected. And I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to my future colleagues.

John Kabler is a state liquor store clerk from Cumberland Co., Pa.

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