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WVU law Professor Bob Bastress argues before the Supreme Court in 2018.

A phalanx of West Virginia labor groups, including the AFL-CIO umbrella union group, the state’s three major school worker unions and the Fraternal Order of Police, are suing to stop a threat to their funding.

The lawsuits, which attorney Bob Bastress said all contain the same arguments, are against Gov. Jim Justice.

In March, the Republican-dominated West Virginia Legislature passed, and Republican Justice signed, House Bill 2009. It’s set to take effect June 17, but the lawsuits are asking Kanawha Circuit Court to stop that from happening.

In almost all cases, the legislation would prevent public employees, and only public employees, from being able to choose to have union or other labor organization dues deducted from their paychecks by their employers. Currently, the employers send these deducted amounts to the unions on the members’ behalf.

Public employees aren’t required to join unions or pay dues to them. Union membership is voluntary, and paycheck deductions have historically — the lawsuits say for over 50 years — been one voluntary way for employees to pay their dues if they join.

“Payroll deduction is the most effective and efficient method for public employees to share fairly in the financial support for the representational, public education and political activities of their unions,” the lawsuits say, “that is precisely why proponents of House Bill 2009 sought to ban it.”

The lawsuits say the legislation is retaliation for recent union mobilization, including the statewide public school worker strikes of 2018 and 2019. Republicans took over both chambers of the Legislature in 2015 and have since passed multiple bills unions oppose.

“In the wake of this constitutionally protected concerted action, government leaders — including Respondent [Justice] — have referred to union leadership as ‘union thugs’ and have developed a legislative agenda that may be accurately characterized as anti-union and anti-employee,” the lawsuits argue. They claim the legislation violates the state constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Justice hasn’t commented on the lawsuits, which were filed Thursday and assigned to multiple Kanawha County judges. They could be consolidated into one lawsuit.

The lawsuits also allege that the legislation violates state constitutional protections of contracts because, they say, it invalidates existing contracts among unions, their members and public employers to deduct these dues from paychecks, and violates the constitution’s grant of equal protection under the law.

The lawsuits note that employees of private companies may still have union dues deducted from their paychecks, as can public employees of municipalities covered by a collective bargaining agreement in effect on July 1 of this year.

“Notably, many other deductions — including those for private and public insurance, charitable organizations, credit unions, payroll savings plans and pension plans are still permitted,” the lawsuits say. “Petitioners and their members — as members of public employee unions — are denied the equal treatment of the law while other similarly, if not identically, situated employees are not.”

For years, Republicans have pushed similar, but less far-reaching, versions of this legislation. Supporters sometimes call it “paycheck protection.” Detractors call it “paycheck deception.”

Past, failed bills still would have allowed paycheck deductions for dues, but would have required workers to annually reagree to them.

In 2017, Justice, who was elected as a Democrat with union backing and was still a Democrat at the time, vetoed such a bill. The lawsuits quote from what they say was a 2017 letter from Justice explaining his reasoning for that.

“This bill creates a significant hardship on employers and employees for a convenient practice that has become commonplace in today’s society,” Justice wrote.

Language affecting school employees was part of an earlier version of the 2019 omnibus education bill, but the provision was removed before Republicans passed that law.

After leveling up their legislative majorities into supermajorities during the 2020 elections, Republicans passed House Bill 2009. It’s a souped-up version of those past bills.

If the lawsuit fails to stop House Bill 2009, it won’t allow public employees to have dues deducted from their paychecks at all — there’s no option to even annually reapprove the deduction.

Bastress, who is a West Virginia University law professor representing the labor groups alongside Charleston-based attorney Jeffrey G. Blaydes, said the suits are against Justice instead of the Legislature because Justice is in charge of enforcing the laws.

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