Samuel Gompers, the founder of the modern day American labor union movement, once wrote that "there may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. . . . It is his legal right and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right."
Today, union leaders rarely tell the rank-and-file about Gompers defense of individual rights. Armed with tens of millions of dollars in forced dues from compulsory union membership, todays unions engage in political activity, social causes, and ideological crusades to which many of the members personally object. That may change, if a 1988 Supreme Court decision is finally enforced.
Although it is not mandated by any law, nearly every union contract bargained for with an employer in the state of Michigan has a union security clause that forces employees to pay union dues. Employers routinely approve of these clauses in exchange for union concessions at the bargaining table. The employer agrees to fire a worker who fails to pay these fees at the unions request. Since this guarantees that the union will get whatever it demands from workers, it is usually in the unions best interest to sacrifice other proposals at the bargaining table to secure this lucrative and self-perpetuating device.
With the exception of right-to-work states, where these security clauses are outlawed under state law, this arrangement is completely legal, with one little twist. That little twist can be summed up in two words: Beck rights.
Workers covered by a security clause must pay dues for the unions collective bargaining activities, but they are not required to financially support the unions political or ideological causes. In fact, workers are actually entitled to a refund of their dues used for purposes not related to collective bargaining activities, contract administration, or grievance processing, according to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Communication Workers of America v Beck.
Beck rights go largely unrealized because workers simply do not know these rights exist. An April 1996 Luntz Research survey of 1,000 union members revealed that 78 percent of union members surveyed were not aware of their right to receive a dues refund under Beck for the portion of their monthly union dues spent on political activities. One out of five union members said that he would "definitely" request a refund because he did not support the AFL-CIOs recent $35 million political campaign. Moreover, a whopping 84 percent of union members in the survey said that their union leaders should be required to disclose "exactly how they spend" union dues.
It is hard to calculate the percent of union dues that are refundable to employees because this information is held solely by the union. For example, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) claims that of the dues paid by faculty members at Central Michigan University, only 17 percent is allocated to noncollective bargaining activities. That means that an MEA member who raises an objection under Beck will save about $80 out of his annual dues of $460.30.
There is good reason to believe that a proper rebate should be far higher than the MEAs calculations. In the Beck case, the Court found that fully 79 percent of the mandatory union dues were refundable. In a more recent case from Ferris State University, over 90 percent could not be justified in court by the MEA-affiliated union.
Michigan citizens have been a catalyst in establishing Constitutional protections in this area of law. Two of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court involved Michigan citizens who were fighting for their Constitutional rights and their jobs. It is high time to make workers aware of their rights and to make it possible for them to exercise these rights freely.
In 1992, President Bush issued an executive order requiring all federal contractors to inform workers of their rights under the Beck decision. This was revoked a few months later by President Clinton. Michigan can act on its own, however. Governor Engler could issue a directive requiring that public and private employees working on state-funded projects be notified of their rights to limit dues payment to collective bargaining functions.
Governor Engler can accomplish for Michigan workers through an executive order what the unions, employers, the president, and the Congress will not do for theminform them of their political rights by mandating the posting of appropriate notices in their workplaces. This will enable Michigan workers to get the legal facts and to protect their jobs, income, and union dues from political exploitation.
While union leaders view the exercise of Beck rights as their worst nightmare, this need not be the case. By voluntarily adopting policies that no union dues will be used for political activities without the written consent of their members, they can act to recognize Beck before the courts, legislatures or governors intervene. In any event, allowing workers to exercise a Constitutional right is not anti-union; it is pro-worker.