by Joseph Lehman
Nearly one million Michigan workers are forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in annual labor union dues in order to keep their jobs. Unions spend a portion of this dues money on worker representation within the workplace, but much is also spent in support of political, social, and ideological goals outside the workplace.
Few workers realize that they have the legal right to withhold payment of dues money that is not spent on legitimate worker representation.
Why are workers forced to pay union dues? The 1935 National Labor Relations Act enacted a national policy of compulsory, institutionalized unionism. Three privileges conferred to unions by the Act subordinate the rights of individual workers to the "common good" of collective bargaining groups. Those privileges are
exclusive representation (protects unions from competition and deprives individual workers of the right to represent themselves);
union security (permits a union and an employer to agree that workers who don't join the union will lose their jobs); and
mandatory bargaining (forces employers to bargain with specific unions and dictates the topics of bargaining).
One effect of these privileges is that workers are forced to financially support the union in order to keep their jobs. A worker covered by a collective bargaining agreement may not effectively "opt out" to represent himself or herself to the employer.
U.S. Supreme Court and other judicial decisions have established two important protections for union workers:
the right to receive a financial breakdown of how the union spends its funds and the right to challenge the figures, and
the right to withhold payment of that portion of union dues which is spent on the unions political, social, and ideological goals. (The amount spent on collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance processing must still be paid.)
Only a fraction of union members are aware of these so-called Beck rights. Widespread awareness and enforcement of Beck rights would probably have at least two related effects:
hundreds of dollars per year in savings to individual workers, and
millions of dollars less in annual labor union income that is now used to fund political, social, ideological, and other activities unrelated to collective bargaining.
Perhaps even more important to workers than money saved would be the greater exercise of freedoms of speech and association under Beck. Workers who object to their unions funding of political, social, and ideological activities should not be forced to fund those activities. The law and union contracts still force workers to pay for union representation in the workplace in order to keep their jobs. This does not extend to forcing workers to pay their unions for representation in the political, social, or ideological arenas.
Union leaders need not fear worker awareness of Beck rights. Workers are capable of making dues choices bearing in mind both their own and their unions interests and priorities. Progressive unions should act now to apprise their members of their rights and of how dues money is spent. Avoiding this disclosure cannot last forever, and delaying it further will only damage union credibility and will invite intervention by the courts, legislatures, or other government bodies.
Neither unions, employers, nor government have done a good job informing workers of their Beck rights. Michigan Governor John Engler should issue an Executive Order to increase Beck rights awareness through notices in state public sector workplaces (including schools), and in workplaces of private sector firms that contract with state government. The Michigan Employment Relations Commission should standardize and streamline its procedures for advising and assisting Beck objectors.
Beck rights are a triumph for individual rights over the political weight of union leaders. Greater awareness and enforcement of those rights will help labor unions return to their roots of genuine service to workers and respect for personal freedom, democratic government, and voluntary cooperation.