A Giant Eagle employee in North Huntingdon, Pa., has filed federal discrimination charges against the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776KS union. The high school-age employee, Josiah Leonatti, claims that the union officials refused to consider his religious beliefs after he expressed religious objections to joining and paying dues to the organization. Union officials, according to his charges, subjected him to an illegal “religion test” to determine whether his religious beliefs count.
Leonatti has also filed charges against Giant Eagle for firing him after he asked for a religious accommodation. According to Leonatti, Giant Eagle falsely told him that he must join the union to keep his job.
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The employee is receiving free legal aid from nonprofit National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation staff attorneys, who filed charges on his behalf 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 unlawfully firing him.
According to the charges, Leonatti 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 said 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 religious beliefs, the charges indicate that 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 that the grocery store had terminated him over his refusal to join.
UFCW officials also responded to Leonatti’s letter by mail on Nov. 10, rejecting the written explanation of Leonatti’s religious objection and demanding that he “complete its religious examination” before they even considered granting him an accommodation. A religious test is forbidden by federal law. Even if he passed this “test,” the charges noted, union officials indicated that he would still have to pay an amount equal to full UFCW union dues to a charity.
“Union bosses’ attempt to coerce a high schooler to violate his religious beliefs is unconscionable and illegal,” said Mark Mix, president of Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Foundation. “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.”
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 these 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.
Leonatti’s charges allege 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.
The EEOC charges demand that the UFCW union and Giant Eagle provide Leonatti a legally required religious accommodation, while the NLRB charges state that relief must include unit-wide information and corporate retraining, among other remedies.
Since Giant Eagle did not receive formal notification of the reported charges, the company was not able to provide comment to Progressive Grocer.
Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle operates more than 470 stores throughout western Pennsylvania, Ohio, northern West Virginia, Maryland and Indiana. The company is also No. 36 on The PG 100, PG’s 2022 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America.