A religious discrimination lawsuit filed last month in federal court against a local union and Boston College is being hailed by anti-union groups for upholding individual workers’ rights — and railed against by union advocates who say it’s an attempt to weaken organized labor.
The plaintiff, a Muslim electrician and member of Service Employees International Union 32BJ District 615, informed the school and the union last fall that his religious beliefs conflicted with being part of the union. He requested that his dues be diverted to charity, and when no action had been taken a year later, according to the complaint, he sued.
The electrician, Ardeshir Ansari, is being represented for free by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Virginia, whose mission is to “challenge forced unionism” in states such as Massachusetts that require all workers — even those who opt out of union membership — to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining done on their behalf. There are 27 states, and Guam, with “right to work” laws that prevent unions from requiring workers to pay such fees.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation was involved in the 2018 Janus Supreme Court decision, which made it illegal for public-sector unions to charge fees to workers who choose not to be union members, which is expected to drive down revenues. Labor advocates fear that if a similar case involving private-sector unions makes it to the Supreme Court, it could be devastating for the labor movement.
The National Right to Work movement and its supporters are “trying to get cases before the Supreme Court to push the impact and the consequence of Janus as far as possible,” said Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.
Union officials at SEIU 32BJ, which has 175,000 members, said the union hasn’t dealt with a religious objection for years and couldn’t recall any involving Muslims. It took time to process Ansari’s request, the union said, but a check to Ansari’s charity was in the works when his lawyer sent a letter about his intent to sue.
“We go above and beyond to make sure our members’ and all workers’ rights are respected — including those granted to religious objectors,” spokesman Eugenio Villasante wrote in an e-mail. “What’s clear here is that the National Right to Work foundation is pushing their antediluvian, anti-worker agenda at all cost at a time when Americans keep demanding stronger laws to protect their right to join together in unions.”
The foundation said this is its first religious discrimination lawsuit involving a Muslim in its 51-year history, though it has assisted Muslims informally, along with workers who are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, and Wiccan.
The foundation declined to make Ansari or his lawyers available, or to provide specifics of what his religious objections were.
“The important part is he has this sincere religious belief and it kind of doesn’t matter what the nature of it is,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president for public information at the foundation.
On its website, the foundation details the protections provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or religion — using the hypothetical case of “Joe Believer,” who is suffering a “conflict of conscience” because his union backs abortion rights and gay rights.
These issues, both supported by branches of SEIU, could conceivably be what Ansari is objecting to, several prominent Muslim leaders said, or it could be that he found a connection between his union and things forbidden by Islam: alcohol, gambling, pork, or collecting interest.
Ismail Fenni, imam at the Yusuf Mosque in Brighton and the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, said he has heard concerns from Muslims about union jobs at the Encore Boston Harbor casino because of its connection to gambling. But many of his mosque members are in unions, he said, and he has never encountered a Muslim who had a religious objection to unions in general.
In fact, the principles of Islamic law require Muslims to “honor contracts,” pay fair wages, and ensure that there are mechanisms to resolve disputes, said Intisar Rabb, a law professor at Harvard Law School and director of its Program in Islamic Law. “To the extent that labor unions ensure these very elements, it is in consonance with mainstream interpretations of Islamic law,” Rabb wrote in an e-mail.
Ansari’s lawsuit highlights one of many reasons an employee may opt out of paying union dues, said Charlyce Bozzello, communications director at the Center for Union Facts, a Washington, D.C., union watchdog group.
“Since 2010, labor unions have given over $1.6 billion to left-of-center advocacy groups, but data shows this spending doesn’t necessarily reflect the wishes of union members,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In 2016, almost half of unionized households voted Republican. But no matter the reason, it shouldn’t be this hard for an employee to choose to keep their hard-earned money out of a union’s pocket.”
Ansari, who has worked at Boston College since 2006, wrote to the college and the union in October 2018 to inform them he “realized that my religious beliefs are in conflict with joining and financially supporting the Union.” He requested that the union divert his dues to charity — a common workaround — and named the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a possible recipient.
In January, Ansari filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ruled in July that because union dues continued to be deducted from his paycheck, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had been violated.
On Oct. 8, his lawyer, Bruce Cameron, wrote a letter to the college and the union laying out three demands: that the union return to Ansari all the union fees deducted from his check for the past year; that future union fees be directed to charity; and that the union post notices that “employees who have religious beliefs that conflict with financially supporting the Union are entitled to a religious accommodation that allows them to redirect their Union fees to charity.”
“Mr. Ansari’s desire is to obey God,” Cameron wrote. “He is not looking to unnecessarily sue his employer or anyone else.”
SEIU 32BJ said it complied with Ansari’s wishes that union fees deducted from his paycheck be diverted to the ASPCA, though it would not say how much was being taken out. The union mailed a check for $738 to the ASPCA in October, officials said, and provided Ansari and his lawyer with the check number.
The check has been cashed, the union said. But Ansari’s lawyer said that they were not given any proof of payment and that “numerous inquiries to the charity resulted in no evidence that anything had been paid.”
A Boston College spokesman confirmed that a special deduction to the ASPCA had been created for Ansari and an amount equal to the fees he would otherwise be charged is now going directly to the charity.
The college declined to comment on the lawsuit other than to say it was disappointed the foundation involved Boston College in the dispute.
“We have been supportive of [Ansari] and have advocated on his behalf with the union,” spokesman Jack Dunn said in an email. “We recognized his religious beliefs and pushed the SEIU to distribute his dues to the charity he chose.”