Three years after SEIU 1199 ignored requests by Connecticut prison nurse Cheryl Spano Lonis to have her dues donated to charity, the union will have to return $2,500 in dues taken from her paycheck.
Lonis' story was first brought to public attention in a Yankee Institute article, which documented her attempts to donate her dues to charity because of her religious beliefs, which is allowed under the union's collective bargaining agreement and a right under the National Labor Relations Act.
Lonis finally filed a lawsuit against the union late in 2018. SEIU 1199 has chosen to settle the matter for return of her dues with interest and acknowledgement of her resignation from the union.
Spano said her lawsuit “finally forced them to take me seriously.”
“I objected to funding the union on religious grounds, but union officials ignored my beliefs, taking and spending my money as they saw fit,” Lonis said. “I’m pleased my hard-earned money will be returned to me rather than used to fund union priorities.”
Spano was represented by The Fairness Center, a Pennsylvania-based legal foundation dedicated to ensuring workers are treated fairly by their union.
Vice President and Director of Litigation for the Fairness Center Nathan McGrath said the union violated Spano’s First Amendment rights by ignoring her religious objections.
“This settlement upholds her rights and restores the money that should have never been taken from her in the first place,” McGrath said.
Lonis’ case is just one of several lawsuits against unions in Connecticut and across the country which have been settled or are still playing out in court, as unions try to push back against individuals – and even other unions – who wish to change their membership status.
The Connecticut State Police Union settled with several officers for repayment of $10,500 in agency fees the union deducted from their pay against their wishes. The officers objected to the union’s political positions.
One of those state police officers filed a separate suit in 2016, alleging he was subject to retaliation.
Two employees with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection filed a class-action lawsuit against SEIU Local 2001 in September 2018 to recoup fees they were forced to pay to the union without their consent.
The New Haven Firefighters Local 825 also filed suit against the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association to allow the local to cease paying dues to the state union. Local 825 was successful in the suit to break away from the state union and are continuing with their allegations that UPFFA misspent their dues money.
Connecticut public sector unions have begun to push back against members who wish to resign from their union following the Supreme Court's Janus v. AFSCME decision, by limiting their ability to cease paying dues to particular windows of time.
Two Connecticut lawmakers have since introduced legislation to enforce the dues authorization windows outlined in union cards.
But, in other parts of the country, those dues authorization windows have faced legal challenges.
In Ohio, AFSCME settled a class-action lawsuit over a similar window period. It was the first class-action lawsuit concerning dues authorization windows since the Janus decision. The union had to refund the dues payments deducted from their former members.
Although successful in her suit, Lonis says she wouldn't have had to take such steps in the first place if the union had just honored the provisions in its own contract and her wishes as an individual.
“I hope the union treats other workers better,” Lonis said.