Union sought to interrogate teenage cashier over his religious beliefs after he asserted his rights and presented religious objections to supporting the union
Pittsburgh, PA – North Huntingdon Giant Eagle employee Josiah Leonatti – a high school student – has filed federal discrimination charges against the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776KS union. He maintains that union officials refused to consider his religious beliefs after he expressed religious objections to joining and paying dues to the union. Union officials, according to his charges, subjected him to an illegal “religion test” to determine whether his religious beliefs count.
Leonatti is receiving free legal aid from National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation staff attorneys, who filed charges for him against the union at both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They also filed charges against Giant Eagle for firing him after he asked for a religious accommodation. Giant Eagle falsely told him that he must join the union to keep his job.
Leonatti charges that the UFCW union and Giant Eagle are breaching Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Title VII requires unions and employers to accommodate employees who have religious objections to joining or supporting a union. The NLRA also prohibits forced union membership regardless of a worker’s reason for not wanting to affiliate with a union. Leonatti’s Title VII claims will be investigated by the EEOC; the NLRB will handle his NLRA claims.
Pennsylvania’s lack of Right to Work protections means that union officials may force private sector workers in unionized workplaces, like Leonatti, to pay them fees or be fired. Under federal law, employees with religious objections cannot be compelled to pay such fees. Right to Work states broaden that protection; in Right to Work states, no worker can be fired for refusal to join or financially support a union no matter the reason for objecting to subsidizing union activities.
High School-Age Employee Dismissed After Presenting Religious Objection
Leonatti’s charges report that he attended employee training last year as a cashier trainee. There an official told new hires that they “must sign papers to join the United Food And Commercial Workers.” According to the NLRB charges, “No other options were even hinted at.”
After reviewing the papers with his family, Leonatti’s charges explain, he mailed a letter to UFCW officials detailing his sincere religious objections to joining and supporting the union. He also presented the same letter in person at training. Rather than accommodate his sincere religious beliefs, a company official “dismissed [Leonatti] from training and sent [him] home.” The same official later called Leonatti and told him that union membership is compulsory at Giant Eagle, and the grocery store had terminated him over his refusal to join.
UFCW officials also responded to Leonatti’s letter by mail on November 10, rejecting the written explanation of Leonatti’s religious objection and demanding he “complete its religious examination” before they even considered granting him an accommodation. Even if he passed this “test,” the charges say, union officials threatened that he would still have to pay an amount equal to full UFCW union dues to a charity.
A religious test is forbidden by federal law. The Supreme Court ruled in its 1981 Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division decision that “religious beliefs need not be…comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
Leonatti’s father called Giant Eagle’s HR department, according to the charges, to gain more clarity. A Giant Eagle employee reiterated that employment depended on union membership. After missing several weeks of work because the store had terminated him, Leonatti got an email from Giant Eagle inviting him to return to work.
To date, however, no Giant Eagle agent ever offered or discussed a religious accommodation with Leonatti, and the union has not retracted its threats or agreed to accommodate.
Employee Seeks Re-Training for Accommodation-Denying Union Officials
Leonatti’s EEOC charges seek to compel the UFCW union and Giant Eagle to provide him a legally-required religious accommodation. In addition, the NLRB charges state that relief must include unit-wide information and corporate retraining, among other remedies.
“Union bosses’ attempt to coerce a high schooler to violate his religious beliefs is unconscionable, and illegal,” commented National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix. “We’re proud to support Mr. Leonatti as he defends his rights, but this should serve as a stark reminder that all Americans deserve Right to Work protections. Regardless of their particular reasons for not wanting to affiliate with a union, no employee’s job should hinge on whether he or she pays dues to a private organization.”
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization providing free legal aid to employees whose human or civil rights have been violated by compulsory unionism abuses. The Foundation, which can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-336-3600, assists thousands of employees in around 250 cases nationwide per year.