In 1988, the U. S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case Communication Workers v. Beck, which established the rights of employees working under union contracts to pay only those union dues or fees necessary for performance of a union’s employee representation duties. Under Beck, fees to support union expenditures unrelated to workplace representation, such as political, social, or charitable contributions, are not mandatory.
Although these "Beck rights" of union workers are well established as a matter of American labor policy, they go largely unrealized in practice for the following reasons:
Most workers simply do not know that they have these rights;
Workers who are aware of these rights are forced to make the sometimes-untenable choice of resigning from their union in order to exercise them;
Workers do not have recourse to an effective legal enforcement mechanism if their Beck rights are denied them by their employer or union; and
Unions, who don’t agree with the exercise of Beck rights, often engage in a variety of tactics to delay and frustrate workers who wish to limit their dues payments.
Several states, including Idaho and Washington, have enacted a measure known as "paycheck protection" to remedy these deficiencies in Beck rights enforcement. Paycheck protection safeguards worker rights by requiring unions to obtain up-front, written approval from individual workers before they spend dues money on political or other non-workplace-related activities.
Michigan has taken a significant, though limited, step in this area by enacting Public Act 117 of 1994. Under this legislation, individual workers must give their consent each year before payroll dues deductions can be used for political action fund contributions. Full paycheck protection would extend these requirements to cover all union non-workplace-related dues expenditures.
Paycheck protection is not a cure-all for workers who are trapped in compulsory union arrangements because the law grants to unions privileges that subordinate workers’ individual rights to the "collective good" of the union membership. Paycheck protection is, however, a more balanced pro-worker approach:
All workers are notified of their option to contribute or withhold dues money;
All employees continue to be represented by the union;
All workers are compelled to pay for union representation services from which they benefit; and
The union is able to continue spending on matters it deems important—but only with dues money consciously and voluntarily contributed by its dues payers.
The concept of paycheck protection is popular among workers, even those who recently voted against a proposal in California because of certain concerns and criticisms raised by opponents. But paycheck protection, understood as a positive step toward fulfilling the promise of the Beck decision, withstands these concerns and criticisms.
Michigan should build upon Public Act 117 and enact full paycheck protection reforms to safeguard the individual rights of the state’s nearly one million union workers.