Paycheck Protection: First Aid for Michigan Workers

Every week in Michigan, labor unions collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from nearly one million workers in the form of compulsory dues and fees. Unions typically spend a substantial portion of those dues and fees to advance non-workplace agendas that many workers, if asked, would find objectionable. Sadly, most workers are not asked, and they lack either the information or resources necessary to protect their hard-earned wages. The time has come to end this exploitation by enacting a comprehensive "paycheck protection" law in Michigan.

In 1988, the U. S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case, Communication Workers v. Beck, which recognized the rights of private-sector employees to pay only those union dues or fees necessary for performance of a union’s representation duties. Other U. S. Supreme Court decisions have recognized that state and municipal employees, including teachers, have a similar constitutional right to a refund of their dues money which is unrelated to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance handling. In other words, the nation’s highest court has signaled that if union leaders want to spend their members’ money on politics, they are supposed to get permission.

Unfortunately, union roadblocks and a lack of information for workers often prevent enforcement of Beck rights for either private or government employees. Two recent events in Michigan demonstrate the glaring need for protecting worker paychecks by preventing union leaders from extracting dues money for their pet political causes and candidates.

Frank Dame, a teacher at Ogemaw Heights High School in northeast lower Michigan, encountered union obstacles when he tried to exercise his Beck rights. Dame attempted to resign from the West Branch-Rose City Education Association (WB-RCEA) and the Michigan Education Association (MEA) last April in order to exercise his right to reduced dues under the Beck decision. But according to MEA bylaws, the union would accept Dame’s resignation only in the month of August.

As a consequence, Dame’s April resignation was disregarded, and he was forced pay full union dues until he successfully resigned in August. He filed unfair labor practice charges against the MEA and WB-RCEA in October formally challenging, among other things, the restriction of his right to resign from the union. Perhaps in an effort to intimidate him, the MEA has demanded that the school district hand over Dame’s personnel file.

In another landmark action, dissatisfied public school employees in Branch County in southern Michigan, snared by the same August restriction on resignations, took drastic action. Last October, they filed a decertification petition with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) asking for a secret ballot vote on whether the MEA should continue to represent the employees.

The employees learned of this option almost accidentally. A message from one union member revealed that the school board and the MEA were bargaining a new contract. One employee thought this prevented further action by his fellow disgruntled employees. Fortunately, after seeking legal advice from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the employees saw that filing a petition for an election was not only possible, but also their best bet.

In both these cases, workers learned of their rights not from their union or even their employer, but from the Mackinac Center.

Paycheck protection would render many of these problems moot. It would simply require that employees be provided with annual notification of their option to contribute to their union’s political, social, and ideological activities or withhold a portion of their dues money before that money goes to the union. The Mackinac Center has proposed that unions in Michigan be required to obtain the prior written consent of workers for such activities that are not part of normal union representation functions.

Annual written consent will dramatically change the ways that unions relate to their dues payers. From a worker’s perspective, this "paycheck protection" is totally positive. Unions will have to use the power of persuasion, not coercion, to convince workers to support political causes. No worker who supports a John Engler will have his money taken from him to support a Geoffrey Fieger, or vice versa. A handful of union officials may find this more cumbersome, but their comfort is not worth sacrificing the rights of the workers who pay their salaries.

Paycheck protection in Michigan would provide a shield for employees trapped in compulsory union arrangements. It would enhance the personal freedom of workers and the accountability of union officials at the same time. It’s time for the Governor and the Legislature to act.