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A Fish And Wildlife Employee Is Suing Oregon Over Union Dues

<p>Service Employees International Union, SEIU, gather for a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.</p>

Richard Vogel

Service Employees International Union, SEIU, gather for a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.

In the national tug-of-war over public employee unions, Debora Nearman presents an interesting case.

The Independence, Oregon, woman is an employee of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and so is represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which negotiates the contract that dictates how much Nearman is paid.

But she’s also the wife of a state legislator, Republican Rep. Mike Nearman, who’s become an enemy of labor. Unions so oppose Mike Nearman’s stances that SEIU 503 chipped in more than $50,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat him at the ballot box in 2016.

That upset Debora Nearman. Now, she’s suing her union, her employer and other state officials.    

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Nearman argues she’s unconstitutionally being forced to help bankroll SEIU efforts like the campaign against her husband. She’s asking a federal judge to rule against laws that allow money to be automatically diverted from her paycheck to pay for union services.    

The suit names SEIU Local 503, the director of ODFW and the director of the Oregon Department of Administrative Services as defendants.

The lawsuit, filed on Nearman’s behalf by the Virginia-based (NRTW), is part of a national effort that could wind up destabilizing public-employee unions around the country.  

In Oregon and more than 20 other states, public employees who don’t want to join a union are still required to pay dues to fund collective bargaining that’s carried out on their behalf. They’re not required to pay for a union’s political advocacy efforts, however.

Nearman, a conservative Catholic who disagrees with the SEIU’s political stances, says she shouldn’t be required to pay anything.  

“There is no justification, much less a compelling one, for mandating that nonmembers support SEIU, which, upon information and belief, is one of the largest, most powerful and politically-active organizations in Oregon,” the lawsuit filed Wednesday states.

Nearman believes her money is being improperly used to advocate for ballot measures and campaigns.

The suit asks a judge to deem forced union payments unconstitutional, to stop the state from collecting union money from her check, and to pay her back money that she’s had to pay — a little less than $1,000 in 2016, according to filings.

In essence, Nearman’s arguing that Oregon should be a “right-to-work” state, in which employees who aren’t interested in being union members aren’t forces to pay union dues. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the group funding Nearman’s case, is pushing similar suits in five other states.

One of those, Janus v. AFSCME, is  currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, and could have a sizable effect on unions nationwide. Earlier this year, Nearman filed a brief in that case, making many of the same arguments included in her lawsuit.

Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for NRTW, says Nearman’s lawsuit could speed up change in Oregon if the Supreme Court agrees that compelled payments to unions violate the First Amendment.  

“It would be a way to more quickly have those rights be enforced,” Semmens said.

State officials didn't immediately return requests for comment about the suit. The SEIU issued a statement, saying it was part of an effort to "undermine worker rights and public services."

"We have not been served and of course can't comment on the lawsuit, but we can say that there is an effort in several states to use lawsuits like this one to make it more difficult for unions to represent and protect workers," said SEIU Local 503 executive director Melissa Unger.

Nearman’s husband, Mike, first won office in 2014, representing a House district outside of Salem that includes Dallas and Independence. In the time since, he’s gotten a reputation as one of the state’s more conservative legislators and a vocal opponent of union initiatives — like 2016’s failed Measure 97, which would have taxed corporations.

According to Debora Nearman’s lawsuit, the SEIU chipped in $53,260 to a political committee called “The Real Mike Nearman Committee” in 2016. The committee “aggressively campaigned against Plaintiff’s husband and distributed fliers that disparaged him.”

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.