Since 2014, Shalea Oliver has seen thousands of dollars removed from her paycheck to fund an organization and political efforts that she does not support. When she tried to push back against those deductions, she faced indifference and a refusal to help from the very people who claimed to represent her.
Now, with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision fueling her arguments, Oliver, a Pennsylvania state employee, is suing to get some of that money back.
“If you don't have any personal knowledge, if you didn't read the news, if you didn't look into things yourself, you wouldn't even know that you have the right to leave this union at this point,” Oliver said during a recent interview. “And I think that they purposely try and keep those who are hypothetically ignorant of the situation in the dark.”
Oliver works for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in Philadelphia. She said that not long after starting the job, she agreed to join as a full member of the Service Employees International Union Local 668 because she was paying what the union calls “fair share” fees anyway and figured that the few dollars difference didn’t matter.
Over time, though, she soured on the union and its political activities, and in 2016 she sought to resign her membership.
“I felt like the union didn't represent me or my views, and in that instance, I didn't even want them to have access to those few extra dollars that they had convinced me to give them,” she said.
Quitting the union, Oliver found, was pretty much impossible. She couldn’t find information on her own on the process to quit and had to ask the union itself how she could go about it.
“It almost came across like it was a blood contract,” she said.
In early 2018, she became aware that a case was before the U.S. Supreme Court that would have bearing on her situation. Janus v. AFSCME argued that forcing public sector workers to pay "fair share" fees was an unconstitutional violation of their freedom to associate as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
And when in the summer of 2018 the court ruled in favor of plaintiff Mark Janus, Oliver knew she had some new ammunition. Instead of just returning to fair share status, she believed she was entitled to quit the union entirely and not have to pay it fees, and she wrote a letter to union officials asserting those rights.
The initial response to the letter was a renewed push to get her to change her mind, Oliver said. But when she made clear that she’d already had such discussions dating back to 2016 and wasn’t interested in further conversation, the union went silent.
“Once they realized that I wasn't willing to negotiate in order to stay, that's kind of when ignoring me came into play,” she said.
Finally, Oliver said, in January of this year – more than six months after the Janus ruling – the union finally let her out. She was refunded some of the dues she had paid, she said, but her lawsuit seeks to claw back everything she paid after the Supreme Court’s decision was made public.
To Oliver, the fight is really about her hard-earned money being used to support political efforts that she may not support.
“The union doesn't get any type of feedback from their workers,” she said. “They actually do the complete opposite, which is they try to peddle whichever politicians they support on the union members. So there isn't any type of feedback as to what you would prefer your union dues to support. They just go ahead and tell you that they're supporting people who are supporting your job, and then request that you do the same.”
Her case, Oliver v. SEIU Local 668, was filed by the nonprofit Liberty Justice Center, the same organization that fought on behalf of Janus. The case is before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Oliver said one of the most important aspects of her legal battle is raising awareness of the rights of workers.
“My hope is that these people who are kind of unaware of whatever rights that they currently have, somehow the word gets out so that people are making more informed decisions when they're dealing with their union versus just taking everything at face value,” she said. “That's really important for me.”