Samuel Gompers 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. This is his right, no matter how morally wrong he may be. It is his legal right and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right."1  George Meany, long-time president of the AFL-CIO, later said of Gompers on this issue, "He founded the American Federation of Labor on the bedrock of voluntarism. Lenin called it a ‘rope of sand.’ Gompers retorted that this rope of sand would prove more powerful than chains of steel. He believed with his whole soul in personal freedom, in democratic government and in the ultimate triumph of voluntary human cooperation over any form of compulsion or dictatorship."2

Modern union leaders have largely abandoned these views. Rather than embracing the traditions of liberty and individual freedom that propelled unions to the forefront of our society, modern unions have shed these early roots in favor of compelled union membership and forced dues. Moreover, contemporary unionism has strayed from its original purpose of representing the interests of union members and their overall well-being. Instead, unions seem to be caught up in national political campaigns, social movements, and various ideological crusades funded directly by the dues coerced from rank-and-file members who may be personally opposed to these causes.

One of the best kept secrets in modern day labor relations is that union members working under a labor union contract have the right to protect their freedoms of speech and association by requesting and receiving a partial refund of union dues. The suppression of these rights is maintained by government inaction and what has been called a "conspiracy of silence" involving employers, unions and governmental agencies.

Labor unions will not divulge the secret for fear of losing union income, membership, and political clout. Employers will not intercede because they view the secret as an internal union matter, or because they are afraid of angering the union. Government agencies and courts are slow to respond with information and definite rulings. Politicians seem incapable of reaching a consensus because of long-standing divisions among political parties. News media have not widely publicized the issue.

Workers covered by a union security forced dues requirement are not required to financially support their unions’ political candidates or ideological causes to which the workers object. (Union security provisions generally refer to those clauses of a labor contract, agreed to by a union and an employer, that protect the union’s status.) Workers may be entitled to a refund of that portion 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.3  Virtually all public and private sector workers compelled to pay union dues in order to hold their jobs have constitutional or statutory rights to limit dues payments to collective bargaining activities.

Under American labor relations laws as interpreted by the courts, no employee represented by a union can be required to be a union member. A worker may be compelled to pay union dues and fees when a collective bargaining contract between his or her employer and the union requires that all employees either join the union or pay union fees. The most that a nonmember can be compelled to pay is a so-called agency fee that equals the share of what the union can prove is its costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance processing. The cost of these core union services rarely equals full dues payments.

Freedoms of speech and association are important and fundamental employee rights. Many workers do not fully enjoy these freedoms simply because they do not know they have the right to withhold union dues payments expended on political or other nonchargeable activities. An April 1996 Luntz Research survey4  of 1,000 union members revealed that 78% 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 election activities. One out of five union members said that they would "definitely" request a refund in lieu of participating in the coerced support of the AFL-CIO’s $35 million political campaign5  witnessed during the 1996 election. By an 84% to 9% margin, union members in the survey said their union leaders should be required to disclose "exactly how they spend" union dues. (See Chart 1.)

A January 25-27, 1997, Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicated that by a margin of 53% to 32% union households believe that labor unions should not be allowed to use a portion of members’ dues to support political causes and issues of interest to the labor movement. The general public, by a spread of 63% to 32%, believes that worker dues should not be used for these purposes. (See Chart 2.)

"Beck rights" is the shorthand denomination for the rights of all nonunion members employed pursuant to union security agreements to not pay certain periodic payments of dues and initiation fees. This paper examines the following:

Beck developments including the legislative framework under which the law was developed and the provisions of current law which laid the groundwork for court action in the Beck case;

• a legal analysis of significant court and regulatory cases prior to and after Beck was issued;

• the difficulties in enforcing Beck rights;

• the impact on workers, employers, and unions of enforcing these rights in Michigan; and

• the need for an executive order by Michigan’s governor.

The purpose of this study is to increase knowledge of Beck rights and options among workers, employers, and unions. Armed with more complete knowledge, union members can consider the needs and priorities of their unions and still act in their own best interest to exercise greater freedoms of speech. Employers can avoid certain risks by learning more about Beck rights, and there are positive strategies for unions in dealing with Beck issues.