MERCER – In a labor relations lawsuit, Mercer County’s sheriff’s deputies are seeking repayment of dues paid to the United Steelworkers while the union was not certified to represent the officers.

The ramifications are significant. Because the Steelworkers union was not certified by the state to represent county deputies, the employees worked for nearly two decades without labor protections or binding contracts, according to allegations made under the lawsuit.

In April, the county commissioners approved a withdrawal from the lawsuit under terms that release Mercer County from further liability, including any orders to repay dues that had been withheld from the deputies’ paychecks. County Commissioner Matt McConnell said the county has paid $37,219, mostly in legal fees, on the lawsuit.

Under the lawsuit, 21 people including office staff and former employees in the sheriff’s office, are seeking repayment of dues paid between 1997 and 2016 to USW Local 1335. Senior Judge John Bozza dismissed the lawsuit at the county court level in July, but the deputies, now represented by an independent certified union, have appealed the case to state Superior Court.

The deputies filed the lawsuit in May of 2017, but the case’s origins go back another 20 years, to 1997, when the state Labor Relations Board denied the Steelworkers’ request to represent the county deputies as a unit of professional employees. Penny Ickes, communications director for the state Department of Labor and Industry, said the deputies were not professional employees under the state’s Public Employee Relations Act.

“The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has no record of ever having certified the United Steelworkers as the exclusive bargaining rep for the deputy sheriffs,” Ickes said in an emailed statement.

Mercer County Deputy Greg Miller, one of the plaintiffs, said being told their union was not certified in 2016 was an unpleasant surprise.

“That was a pretty sickening realization,” Miller said.

He said not being certified meant the deputies never had any bargaining power.

According to Ickes, the USW’s certification issue applied only to the Mercer County deputies. 

“The United Steelworkers could be, and are, certified to represent other units of professional employees,” she stated.

Staff at the USW District 10 office — which is based in North Versailles, Allegheny County and covers Pennsylvania — declined to comment. 

Miller said the deputies discovered that they had no legal union representation in 2016 after filing a grievance on behalf of a deputy that had been promoted to sergeant. The contract in place called for sergeants to earn $1 per hour more than the highest-paid unranked deputy.

Instead the newly promoted sergeant was given an hourly raise of $1 more than their previous salary. Miller said the county denied the grievance on the grounds that the union wasn’t legally a collective bargaining unit because of the USW’s certification issue.

Matt McConnell, who has been a county commissioner since January 2012, denied that the county failed to process any grievance and that county officials had previously warned the deputies that their union might not be certified.

The deputies subsequently left the USW and formed their own union, the Mercer County Deputy Sheriffs Association. Ickes confirmed that the deputies’ current union is certified to be a collective bargaining unit, in 2017. 

Miller said the Mercer County Deputy Sheriffs Association covers 13 full-time and six part-time deputies.

After forming the new union, the deputies filed a lawsuit against the USW, alleging breach of duty of fair representation and the county for breach of contract. The agreement approved in April released the commissioners from the lawsuit and any liability from future awards in the case.

Attorney William McConnell of the McConnell Law Firm in Hermitage, who represents the deputies, said the dues should not have been collected since they were not remitted to a certified union.

“They wanted to recoup the dues they paid,” McConnell said.

Miller said the deputies sued Mercer County to learn the exact amount of dues the workers paid to the USW. He said that information would have been provided as part of the information-gathering process for a court case.

The county would have been released from the lawsuit sooner if it had released that figure, he said. 

Attorney Christopher Gabriel,the county’s outside labor and employment counsel, said the county was added to the lawsuit because it had collected union dues from paychecks.

Gabriel — of the Sewickley, Allegheny County, law firm Cafardi, Ferguson, Wyrick, Weis and Stotler — the county collected dues just as it would have for any other union employees.

“All we were was a conduit for the money,” he said.

But the county wasn’t completely blameless, said William McConnell.

“It was unlawful for the county to negotiate with an uncertified unit,” he said.

The commissioners approved the settlement at the April 18 meeting. During that meeting, Matt McConnell lamented the loss of taxpayer dollars due to the lawsuit. 

William McConnell countered that the county did not have to spend money on a legal defense had it not signed contracts with an uncertified union, and that the county could have avoided some of the expense if they had reached an agreement with the new deputies’ union in 2017.

“That’s unfortunate for the taxpayers,” William McConnell said.

Matt McConnell said he hoped both sides can move forward.

“I’m glad it’s behind us,” he said.