A Pittsburgh teenager has filed a labor complaint against Giant Eagle grocery stores and the United Food and Commercial Workers union saying both ignored his religious exemption request to remain out of the store’s union.
Josiah Leonatti, a high school student, was hired by the grocery chain as a cashier in late October. At a training session in early November, he says he was presented with paperwork to join the union, but he refused to sign and asked to take the paperwork home to his parents.
He returned to the store later with a letter explaining that his religious beliefs “conflict with joining and financially supporting the UFCW union,” but that employees told him the store was a “union shop.”
“No other options were even hinted at,” Leonatti and his attorneys say in the complaint.
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The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) is providing Leonatti with pro bono legal representation in the matter, alleging 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).”
“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,” the NRTW said in a press release.
“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,” the release added.
Leonatti further charges that the store asked him to complete a “religious examination,” which the NRTW says is forbidden by federal law, based on a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division.
[T]he more important issue here is that UFCW and Giant Eagle officials believe it’s legal, let alone conscionable, to threaten a high school-age supermarket cashier with termination for trying to exercise his religious freedom rights…
Leonatti hopes to compel the UFCW union and Giant Eagle to provide him a legally required religious accommodation, according to the press release.
A spokesperson for NRTW did not specify what religion or denomination Leonatti belonged to, nor what principle was being defended.
“In these kinds of cases, our attorneys are focused only on defending the rights of those who have a religious objection to union membership and dues payment. From a legal standpoint, the fact that a religious objection is sincere is all that is needed to create the legal obligation on employers and unions to attempt the accommodation,” said Jacob Comello, media coordinator for NRTW.
“We of course think the more important issue here is that UFCW and Giant Eagle officials believe it’s legal, let alone conscionable, to threaten a high school-age supermarket cashier with termination for trying to exercise his religious freedom rights, specifically by subjecting him to a religion test of the union’s own making,” Comello concluded.
A spokesperson for Giant Eagle said it was standard policy for the company not to comment on pending legal issues or matters.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports