• The San Juan Daily Star

Police Bureau civilian employees sue over union membership

The lawsuit says the Puerto Rico Police Bureau and union officials are depriving the plaintiffs of a monthly health benefit because they are not union members.

By John McPhaul

Eight civilian employees of the Puerto Rico Police Bureau (PRPB) are suing the Union of Organized Civilian Employees and their employer for allegedly illegally retaliating against them for exercising their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit says the PRPB and union officials are depriving them of a monthly health benefit because they are not union members. National Right to Work Foundation (NRWF) staff attorneys are representing the workers for free and filed the class action suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.

The plaintiffs, Vanessa Carbonell, Roberto Whatts Osorio, Elba Colón Nery, Billy Nieves Hernández, Nelida Alvarez Febus, Linda Dumont Guzmán, Sandra Quiñones Pinto and Yomarys Ortiz González are defending their First Amendment rights recognized in 2018 by the Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In Janus, the high court ruled that forcing public sector employees to join or fund a union as a condition of employment violates the First Amendment. The Justices also declared that union dues can only be taken from public sector workers who have voluntarily waived their right not to pay, the NRWF said in a press release.

Under the laws of Puerto Rico and many states, union officials are empowered to impose their “representation” on every employee in a workplace, even those who reject formal union membership or vote against installing a union. Workers subject to such monopoly power cannot negotiate their own terms of employment. Instead they are forced by the law under the union’s one-size-fits-all monopoly contract, even though such contracts often undermine the interests of many covered workers, the press release said.

Although courts have recognized that such government-imposed union “representation” infringes on workers’ First Amendment right to freedom of association, they have thus far allowed forced union representation so long as union officials do not use it to engage in explicit discrimination, including on the basis of formal union membership, as is happening to the PRPB employees, according to the press release.

The legal doctrine that makes such discriminatory contract terms illegal was first adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case in which union officials were wielding their monopoly bargaining power to discriminate against workers on the basis of race.

According to the lawsuit, the employee plaintiffs are nonmembers who have exercised their right under Janus to end union membership and cut off union dues deductions. When they exercised that right at various points after the 2018 Janus decision, each noticed that as soon as dues ceased coming out of their paycheck they also stopped receiving a $25-a-month employer-paid benefit intended to help employees pay for health insurance.

“[T]he Union, through its president, Jorge Méndez Cotto, asked PRPB to stop awarding the $25 monthly additional employer contribution to any bargaining unit member who objected to [forced] membership…,” the complaint says.

“Plaintiffs are ready, willing, and able to purchase additional and higher quality health insurance benefits with the additional employer contribution that is being denied to them,” the complaint points out. “But for the above-described discriminatory policy, they would purchase better quality health insurance.”

The employees contend in the lawsuit that the rescission of the health benefit is a gambit to restrict their First Amendment Janus rights.

“The policy and practice … of withholding the additional employer contribution from non-union bargaining unit members violates the employees’ constitutional rights by coercing them to join the Union,” the lawsuit says.

The eight employees seek a judgment requiring the union and PRPB to stop holding back the health benefit from their paychecks, and also to pay them all money that has been unlawfully withheld under the scheme, plus interest. The plaintiffs also demand the same relief for all their colleagues who also refrained from union membership and have been denied the health benefit as a result.

Last year, NRWF attorneys scored a victory in a similar situation for University of Puerto Rico (UPR) employees José Ramos and Orlando Méndez, who reported being denied permanent health insurance cards because they refused to retroactively “authorize” dues seizures UPR Workers Union officials had already made from the workers’ paychecks in violation of the First Amendment. After NRWF attorneys filed a motion for an injunction against the union, Méndez and Ramos received their permanent health insurance card, the press release said.

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