Why Beck Rights Are Important To Workers

Unions tend to downplay both the likely impact of educating rank-and-file members of their right to a refund of union political expenditures, and the probable effects of enforcing Beck rights in the courts and administrative agencies. Union claims in this area may be a little suspect considering that they are a primary force in suppressing and distorting knowledge of Beck rights. If the exercise of Beck rights continues to receive greater legal attention and workers receive a growing body of truthful information on the subject, a number of contemporary trends will change the face of unionism.

Widespread knowledge of Beck rights will cause union members to consider the advantages and disadvantages of exercising the right to a dues rebate and a reduced agency fee. The decision of whether to exercise Beck rights is very much a matter of individual choice.

Under the RLA and NLRA case law, a union can compel employees to resign from the union in order to exercise their Beck rights. The employees continue to remain fully covered by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and the union is bound to represent the nonmembers through its duty of fair representation. For example, a union cannot refuse to handle grievances filed by a Beck objector simply because he or she is a nonmember, and courts are willing to more closely examine duty of fair representation cases where nonmember status is an issue. In exchange for services that the union must offer to the nonmember, the employee must continue to pay "financial core" dues to the union, thus sharing in the costs of representation but avoiding those expenditures which are not germane to collective bargaining.

Given the substantial power the union has to affect an employee’s working conditions, it may be to the employee’s advantage to have a say in the way that the union exercises its authority. The only effective way to do that is to become or remain a union member and participate in its governance. Those rights of participation are almost always limited to union members. Depending on the employee’s level of interest in union affairs, union members can participate in critical decisions about negotiation strategies and goals, how the collective bargaining agreement will be enforced and which grievances should be taken to arbitration. Participating in strike votes, ratification or rejection of contract terms, and the election of union officers are important rights of union membership that many Beck objectors must forgo.

Exercising Beck rights in the workplace has other effects. Peer pressure and bullying from within union ranks often discourages members from exercising Beck rights. Exercising Beck rights by objecting to paying full union dues may create an uncomfortable working environment and tension among coworkers who support the union’s political and ideological causes. Other members may feel that the Beck objector is shirking the full payment of dues while accepting the benefits of union representation, even though this is untrue because nonmembers must pay for exactly those services the union renders according to the duty of fair representation. More often than not, the primary reason that rank-and-file union members are discouraged from exercising Beck rights is simply because they are pressured to avoid "rocking the boat."

Beck rights can be resolved only on an individual basis. Whether to become a core financial member is a personal choice—one which may stand primarily on principle. Beck rights stand for a very important principle, and the individual who exercises these rights usually does so on principle. In Beck the Supreme Court recognized that the principles of individualism and the ability to control one’s own political, social and moral choices should not be undermined by policies favoring collective bargaining and unionization.

Benefits received by nonmembers must be considered for a full appreciation of the rights recognized by Beck. Nonmembers escape the union’s ability to fine workers for violating the union’s constitution and bylaws. Escaping internal union rules and disciplinary actions may be a significant plus for some employees. Working during an authorized strike without penalty is a common example. A union member who crosses the picket line may face fines and other disciplinary proceedings, while a Beck objector is free to join strikers or work through a labor dispute based on his or her own choice and personal needs. The Supreme Court has held that an employee may resign from the union at any time in order to avoid the force of such disciplinary rules, but resignation only works prospectively and must precede the acts for which the union member may be disciplined. 49 

Another major benefit to an employee who exercises Beck rights is that refunded dues money translates into an immediate pay raise. Although this may not increase each paycheck significantly, the total rebate can grow large over many years. Political and ideological expenditures out of these average union dues could presumably be as high as 79% (as in Beck) or even 90% (as in Lehnert). The union member who exercises Beck rights could save this money. For instance, an employee paying an annual union fee of $672 could, if the nonchargeable expenditures were as high as in Lehnert, receive a rebate of about $600. Likewise, an employee paying $250 annually could receive a rebate of $100 if the nonchargeable expenditures were determined to be 40%. There are many rebate variables which make precise figures difficult to estimate. (See Chart 3.) 50 

The Employment Policy Foundation of Washington, D.C., estimates that the average local union member in 1995 in a non-right-to-work state pays approximately $425 in dues annually. Professor James Bennett of George Mason University calculated that the average annual dues for 1987 was $672. 51 

On the other hand, the dues rebate may be smaller. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) claims that only 17.29% of its dues is allocated to nonchargeable expenditures. A full dues paying member pays $460.30 annually; the reduced fee paid by core members is $380.71 (less a $3.00 allowance for potential disputed chargeable costs). The MEA’s accounting procedures are currently under legal attack, however, and the Association has so far refused to reveal the underlying documentation to prove that its accounting procedures are legitimate. 52 

A substantial benefit inuring to Beck objectors and full union members is the requirement that the union account for its expenditures and inform the represented employees of how their dues money is being spent. This has been one of the greatest complaints of union members—that they are in the dark regarding how the union spends their money. Beck rights shed light on this issue by forcing the union to account for expenditures. Full union members are aided by being able to challenge the union’s fiscal discretion and influence the direction of their union. Active union members are thereby able to more fully participate in the union’s internal proceedings, providing additional democratic oversight to the operation of their union. This is a healthy development in union affairs and is long overdue. Perhaps the entire Beck issue could have been avoided had the unions voluntarily disclosed financial information to the rank-and-file, instead of vigorously resisting full disclosure.

Many employees may exercise their Beck rights because they want the freedom to spend their own money on the political causes, issues and candidates they wish to support and not those dictated by their union. Should workers who enjoy hunting be forced to pay dues which support political candidates who oppose firearm ownership? The list of possible objections is endless. That is why it is important to leave personal political decisions to individuals and not to presume that a union (or any other group) has the right to make those decisions for workers.

The NLRA has deprived union members of their most fundamental civil liberties through compulsory dues and a lack of accountability. Beck rights are a triumph for individual rights over the political weight of union leaders and they represent a giant step toward worker political emancipation.