Why Can’t Workers Leave Their Unions?

We recently released a 50-state report analyzing labor issue trends and grading states by their labor laws. So where does Pennsylvania fall in this ranking? A disappointing D.

While various factors contribute toward this grade—such as lack of transparency and paying union officials with public money—one practice stands out. The commonwealth is an unwelcome outlier in statutorily trapping workers in unions.

Union leaders are permitted via state law to implement a “maintenance of membership” provision in their contracts, restricting members from resigning until a 15-day “opt-out window” prior to the expiration of a typically three-five year contract. This means members must wait years before they can leave, or longer if they miss (or don’t know about) the timeframe.

While many states may include opt-out windows in their contracts, Pennsylvania is one of just six states with resignation restrictions in state law.

Map: States with Public Sector Union Opt-Out Windows

Other states, due to the recent Janus v. AFSCME (2018) Supreme Court ruling, are attempting to impose the same restrictions Pennsylvania has had for decades. The ruling stated public sector union fees imposed on non-members violated the First Amendment. To combat potential membership loses, unions are attempting to limit when members can resign.

This violates the freedoms of workers like Tammy Wessner, a psychiatric aide at Wernersville State Hospital in Pennsylvania.

Tammy attempted to leave her union in 2018, but after initially being ignored while continuing to take her dues, her resignation was denied for being outside the opt-out window. With the help of public interest law firm The Fairness Center, she is suing for the right to resign from a union she doesn’t believe represents her interests or beliefs. According to Tammy:

I paid my dues, literally, for 10 years, but union officials didn’t even have the courtesy to respond to me…This illustrates just how out of touch with members they really are. I shouldn’t be forced to file a lawsuit to get their attention. At the same time, they’re taking money out of my paycheck every month. I want out of the union, and I want my money back.

It was only because of a member lawsuit that a local Pennsylvania union recently eliminated maintenance of membership from their contract, acknowledging workers should have the right to resign at any time. All workers deserve this option—and with reform, they can gain it without a legal battle.

As a first step, the Employee Rights Notification Act (Rep. Kate Klunk) would ensure workers even know they have a choice to not be union members. Meanwhile, House Bill 506 (Rep. Greg Rothman) would go even further and allow workers to resign at any time.

Tammy, and the many workers like her, are harmed when unions leaders and their legislative allies attempt to thwart Janus. Pennsylvania has a chance to lead the nation in protecting—not eliminating—their rights.