New Haven union UNITE HERE Local 217 agreed to settle a federal lawsuit with a school cafeteria cook who argued the union did not allow her to resign union membership in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

Tina Curtis, a long-time New Haven Board of Education employee, filed suit after she says the union required her to continue paying dues under the terms of her membership card and under 2016 union contract language that said dues or fees were a condition of employment, language the Supreme Court struck down as illegal under first amendment protections.

The Janus decision only applies to public-sector workers. Local 217 represents both public and private sector employees, including hospitality employees. 

Under the terms of the settlement, the union must recognize that Curtis is no longer a member and not subject to the union membership card she signed in 2019, and the union has removed “Union Security” language in their contract via a side letter.

According to the court complaint, Local 217’s contract language included a Union Security and Payroll Deduction provision that said, “All employees, if not already members, shall within thirty days following the effective date of this Agreement, as a condition of continued employment, become and remain a member of the Union in good standing or pay to the Union an agency fee in recognition of the services performed by the Union.”

Such language was standard in public-sector union contracts until the Janus decision. 

“Through this case, Tina forced union officials to recognize her and her colleague’s’ constitutional rights,” said Danielle Acker Susanj, vice president and senior litigation counsel for the Fairness Center, a non-profit legal center based in Pennsylvania. “Her victory shows that public-sector union officials cannot ignore the Supreme Court’s Janus decision with impunity.”

According to the settlement agreement, the defendants, which includes the City of New Haven and the New Haven Board of Education, will not present to union members that “dues or fees to Local 217 are required as a condition of employment so long the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Janus remains controlling law.”

Curtis’s case was the latest among a number of cases that have arisen since the Janus ruling in which union members seek to resign their membership but meet resistance, typically in the form of opt-out windows on union membership cards that restrict when a union member can actually resign their membership and cease paying dues.

In 2021, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law that, among other things, ensured the membership language outlined in union membership cards was backed by state law. The move was supported by union leaders and viewed as a response to the Janus decision.

“Tina’s case is the latest in a disturbing trend of union officials who seem to think the Supreme Court’s rulings don’t apply to them,” said Fairness Center President Nathan McGrath in the center’s March 2022 press release. “UNITE HERE officials were aware of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2018. But they chose to mislead our client rather than follow the law.”

Local 217 recently won union representation for employees of the Graduate Hotel in New Haven, noting it was the “first New Haven hotel to unionize in nearly a quarter century,” according to Local 217’s Facebook post.

UNITE HERE Local 217 did not respond to request for comment.

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Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels,...

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