July 2, 2013 | Commentary on Labor
Not every terminated employee wins a $10,000 settlement, but Jeff Richmond did. The West Virginian utility worker refused to donate to his union's political action committee. So the Laborers International Union had him fired.
Richmond sued, arguing his termination was illegal, and got both his dues refunded and back pay. His victory illustrates a little-known fact: unionized workers can opt out of some or all union dues.
Many union members don't know this, but they can. In the 24 states with right-to-work laws, union dues are entirely optional. In these states, unions cannot force workers to pay dues. In the remaining states, they can - but only to a point.
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech. No one can force Americans to financially promote views they oppose. So unions cannot compel workers to support their political activities. Supreme Court rulings let workers opt out of dues spent on politics. Jeff Richmond's union and employer had to give him a refund and back pay because they ignored this right.
The First Amendment also protects freedom of religion. Americans cannot be forced to violate their faith. Unions often support causes that many religious believers consider immoral. The National Education Association, for example, endorses both abortion and same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court has ruled the government cannot force workers to support organizations in violation of their consciences. In states without right-to-work laws, religious objectors can send their dues to a charity of their choice instead.
Many union members have no idea these rights exist. The fact that they could keep money currently going to politicians, or send their dues to the Red Cross instead, comes as news to most workers. Fortunately, more than 50 organizations have joined together to inform employees about these rights.
During National Employee Freedom Week (June 23-29), organizations ranging from The Heritage Foundation to the Association of American Educators to state think tanks were educating union members about their rights to opt out of some or all union dues. This will enable workers to make the choice that is right for them.
The campaign started last year in Las Vegas. Nevada has a right-to-work law, though unions do little to advertise that fact. A local think-tank e-mailed Las Vegas teachers, explaining their right to opt-out of union dues. They created an opt-out form and promoted it at school board meetings.
Most teachers were happy with their union and remained dues-paying members. But more than 400 teachers dropped their membership and their $750 annual dues. These teachers did not feel their union looked out for them. (The local president paying himself $600,000 a year may have contributed to their dissatisfaction.) So when they learned about their rights, they opted out.
Now the campaign has gone national. Many union members believe they get value for their dues. They can and should remain union members. But other workers have good reasons to opt out.
More than a few unions remain deeply corrupt. Others violate their members' religious beliefs; devout teachers in New York City might object to their union's giving $125,000 to America's largest abortion provider. Unions also have one-sided political priorities; a third of union members vote Republican, but virtually all union campaign spending goes to Democrats.
These are sound reasons to stop paying dues. Alternative professional organizations can provide similar services - like professional development and liability insurance - for a fraction of what unions change. Workers should know their rights and choose their best option.
Unions would rather workers did not. Not surprisingly, they want workers' money. Most union contracts only permit workers to exercise their rights during a narrow window each year. Those teachers in Las Vegas had to submit their opt-out forms between July 1 and July 15. Of course, most teachers are away on summer break then.
For the same reason unions furiously oppose right-to-work laws. They spent millions trying to prevent Indiana and Michigan from passing them. Unions make it as difficult as possible to decline their services.
In the end, however, the decision about how to spend their money belongs to workers. Satisfied union members can maintain their membership. And dissatisfied members can opt out of some or all of their dues.
As Jeff Richmond's settlement demonstrated, unions cannot stop workers from making the choice that is right for them.
-James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved by McClatchy News Tribune wire