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BC, Union Sued for Religious Discrimination

Ardeshir Ansari, a Boston College electrician, filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the University and his union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ District 615, in November. The suit involves a policy in the collective bargaining agreement between the union and BC that requires the University to automatically deduct union dues from employee’s paychecks, according to court documents. 

Ansari, who is Muslim, objects to financially supporting the union and asked the union to divert his union fees to charity in October 2018, according to court documents. Though union members are typically required to pay dues, Ansari said he believes his religious objection to the union’s activities entitles him to accommodation from the SEUI and BC.

In the Supreme Court case Beck v. Communication Workers of America (1988), employers and unions in collective bargaining agreements can require non-union employees to pay fees and dues necessary to fund their representation. 

Bruce Cameron, a Regent University law professor representing Ansari pro bono on behalf of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, declined to comment on Ansari’s specific objection to paying the dues.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a nonprofit charity that works to “eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs,” according to its website

The foundation has lobbied states to pass “right to work” laws, which exempt nonunion workers from paying any union dues, and has been involved in a number of high-profile Supreme Court decisions, including Beck and Janus v. AFSCME (2018), which struck down public-sector collective bargaining agreements that require non-union employees to pay dues.

Ansari’s lawsuit alleges that BC and the SEIU engaged in religious discrimination and quid pro quo religious harassment by coercing him to abandon his religious beliefs to keep his job.

He is pursuing both charges through Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on religious beliefs and requires that employers accommodate the religious beliefs of their employees, and the Equal Pay Act.

Beyond his request for exemption from union dues, Ansari has asked a federal court to require BC and the SEIU to inform all employees of the possibility of charitable donations in lieu of union dues. Ansari is also requesting damages for the “emotional pain, suffering, and mental anguish” imposed by the University and the union for refusing to accommodate him and threatening his job, according to court documents.

In his initial request in October of 2018, Ansari requested that the SEIU divert the union dues deducted from his payroll to one of four charities: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Susan G. Komen foundation, Boston Children’s Hospital, or St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

After receiving written notice of Ansari’s objection, BC continued to deduct union fees from his paycheck, according to court documents. The union did not provide Ansari with evidence of donations to charity, according to the documents.

“Ardeshir is a respected member of the BC community whose dispute is not with Boston College, but with the SEIU,” Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn said in an email to The Heights.

“Boston College has been supportive of Ardeshir since he expressed his desire not to pay union dues based on his religious beliefs, and we have advocated on his behalf with the union,” Dunn said. “As an electrician at BC, Ardeshir works in a union shop. Boston College serves as pass-through for union dues. We pushed the SEIU to distribute his dues to the charity he chose—the ASPCA. The SEIU apparently did not do so in a timely manner, which prompted the suit.”

Representatives for the SEIU declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Ansari filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, in January 2019. The EEOC determined in July that Ansari held a legitimate religious exemption to paying union dues that had not been accomodated, violating his rights under Title VII. Specifically, the ruling determined that “it is unreasonable to think that [the University and the union] still have been unable to figure out how to divert/donate [Ansari’s] dues to a third party charity, some five plus months” after the initial request.

The SEIU told the EEOC that it was “still in the process of determining how it can administratively divert dues to charity,” while BC wrote that the University had “made numerous attempts… to contact the Union to discuss the accommodation,” according to court documents.

The University stopped deducting union fees from Ansari’s payroll following the July EEOC ruling. The University has since created a direct deduction to the ASPCA equal to the amount Ansari would owe in union dues as a replacement, according to The Boston Globe.

In September, the EEOC found that Ansari could pursue legal action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act after failing to obtain a settlement, although declined to bring a suit itself.

In October 2019, Cameron offered a three-point settlement to BC and the union, asking them to post a notice that employees with religious objections can divert union dues to charity, reimburse Ansari for all union fees since October 2018, and agree to divert Ansari’s future dues to charity. Cameron threatened legal action if the terms of the settlement were not met.

Cameron told The Heights in an interview that both BC and the SEIU are named in the suit because the responsibility to divert Ansari’s dues fell on both institutions.

He also criticized the collective bargaining agreement, arguing that it blurred the lines between paying dues to fund representation and to fund political initiatives.

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Senior Staff

January 23, 2020

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