Union Workers: Know What Your Rights and Options Are!

Truth in labeling now comes to union workers thanks to the courageous action of Roland Buzenius of Three Rivers, Michigan. In a recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court ruled that Buzenius’ employer, Weyerhaeuser, and his union, United Paperworkers International Union, can no longer agree to collective bargaining language that misrepresents an employee’s union membership obligations.

The collective bargaining agreement in the Buzenius case required each employee to remain a "member in good standing" in the union as a condition of employment. Without further clarification of a worker’s legal rights, these standard contract clauses, referred to as "union security clauses," are at odds with a Supreme Court case decided 34 years ago. Under the nation’s labor laws, these union security clauses can compel payment of only reasonable initiation fees and periodic dues. Actual membership in the union is wholly optional.

When a union comes into a workplace, it becomes the exclusive representative of all employees—including those who did not vote for it. Exclusive representation really means exclusive monopoly power because individual workers are no longer at liberty to represent themselves or allow any other organization to negotiate for them. Along with exclusivity comes a union’s demand for forced dues, and, in exchange, unions grant permission for workers to work.

In effect, the employer becomes the union enforcer by agreeing to discharge anyone who fails to pay the union’s required fees. Union security clauses are sought primarily by unions because they funnel dues into the union’s treasury. Employers do not have to agree to this system and should not do so if there is strong opposition within the workforce. At the very least, employers should correct the ambiguity in current labor agreements that mistakenly leads employees to believe that union membership is required. Employers who fail to do this risk committing unfair labor practices.

The nature of security clauses is unique to labor unions. No other private association in America has the same government sanctioned power to confiscate the earnings of unwilling individuals. What about those workers who didn’t vote for the union, who believe they aren’t getting a fair shake from it, or who oppose joining any organization to which they must pay tribute just to work?

For the worker in any of those predicaments, the solution is to get involved early in the collective bargaining process. Workers can demand to know their rights under the law. They may discuss workplace issues with fellow employees, learn co-workers’ sentiments, and, if desired, advocate an "open shop" in which union membership is voluntary. Workers should discuss concerns with the employer and the union. Employers might be willing to listen if enough people insist on an open shop. Where workers don’t stand up and speak out, employers will routinely agree to union security in order to get some other contract term more beneficial to their business operations.

Once compulsory employee payments are agreed to, they tend to go on auto-pilot. This means that the union gets paid whether it is doing a good or bad job during the contract term. On the other hand, a union that has to earn its membership and dues is far more likely to be responsive to employee needs and cannot take anything for granted. That’s the kind of dynamic representation that workers deserve and, presumably, would be willing to pay for.

Voluntary dues payments offer another big plus for workers. The U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1988 case of Communication Workers v. Beck that a union may compel payment only for "core activities," which essentially limits compulsory dues to paying for contract negotiations and grievance proceedings. Although a worker may not be forced to pay for political campaign contributions under this ruling, Beck rights are difficult to enforce. It usually requires employees to first object and then bring private legal actions to secure the right to pay reduced union dues. The best way for workers to avoid paying for extraneous, non-collective bargaining activities is to make these payments completely voluntary. As it currently stands, however, labor unions appear totally opposed to entrusting the funding of their political agendas to voluntary contributions by their own rank-and-file members.

The bottom line is that even a properly construed union security agreement has serious legal and financial consequences. Employees should know their options and actively assert themselves in their workplace before these agreements become etched in stone. Apathetic employees find their jobs and take-home pay affected by union and company leaders who place their own interests foremost. It is up to individual workers to voice their free speech rights and protect their interests.