In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Communications Workers v. Beck (487 U.S. 735) that workers who are forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment may not be required to pay dues beyond those necessary for collective bargaining purposes. They also are entitled (if they so choose) to a refund of any portion of their dues used by their union for political purposes.
Today, however, most workers in unions are no better off than they were before Beck. When it comes to issues related to the payment of union dues, they have no single independent source upon which they can rely for accurate information concerning their rights. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Labor refuses to provide union members with the information they need to make informed decisions. A recent poll for the National Voter Survey, for example, showed that most union members are not even aware of their rights. Even worse, many workers who have tried to exercise their legal rights regarding union dues have been threatened, intimidated, and stonewalled by their unions.
Merely codifying the Beck decision will not rectify these problems. Although it has been ten years since Beck became the law of the land, the U.S. Department of Labor has not changed its union reporting requirements to allow workers to be better informed. Codifying Beck would still leave unions free to require that their members overcome numerous obstacles in order to exercise their legal rights. It also would amount to codifying taxation without representation in the workplace. Under existing union security agreements, a nonmember could still be forced-as a condition of employment-to pay dues for the costs of union representation while being denied the ability to participate in all decisions regarding that representation. Codifying Beck, moreover, would not resolve the problem of conflicting court decisions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently ruled that unions should use an independent auditor to calculate the portion of union dues going to political activities. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, however, later ruled that an in-house union auditor was sufficient. This is a problem that Congress must solve.
To correct the abuse of compulsory union dues, and to enable union workers to exercise their full rights under the Beck decision, Representative Harris Fawell (R_IL) has introduced the Worker Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1625). This legislation would require (1) that employers provide workers with information about their legal rights regarding the payment of union dues, (2) that unions provide them with information on how those dues are spent, and (3) that unions obtain written permission from their members before spending their dues for non-collective bargaining purposes. On November 18, 1997, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed H.R. 1625 by voice vote.
Specifically, the Worker Paycheck Fairness Act offers three important improvements over current policy:
Workers would be notified of their rights. Unionized employers would have to post a notice informing workers of their rights, and unions would have to provide the information workers need to determine what portion of their dues is being used for collective bargaining purposes.
Workers would have to give up-front consent. Unions would be required to obtain written permission from their members before using their dues for political purposes, and union members would have the ability to revoke that authorization by giving their union a 30-day written notice.
Workers would gain representation. Union workers who pay for the cost of representation would be able to participate in their union's decisions regarding representation. Workers who exercise their Beck rights and continue to pay the collective bargaining portion of their dues to the union would no longer give up critical workplace rights, such as the right to vote on ratifying contracts or approving strikes.
While the Worker Paycheck Fairness Act goes a long way toward ending the involuntary use of union dues for political purposes, it does not address three key problems:
It does not settle the issue of conflicting court decisions-specifically, the use of independent third-party audits of the use of union dues. Right now there are two different U.S. Court of Appeals decisions on the issue, a situation that inevitably is confusing to workers.
It does not cover the 5.7 million state and local workers-34.6 percent of all union members. These workers also must have the right to decide where their union dues are used.
It does not go to the source of the problem: mandatory or forced union dues themselves. The best solution to the abuse of union dues would be to rescind the privilege of exclusive representation that Congress conferred on unions in the National Labor Relations Act.
As the U.S. Supreme Court's Beck decision has been implemented over the past ten years, the ability of American workers to exercise their legal rights has proven to be elusive. Congress should ensure that union members can exercise their legal rights easily, and it should settle some of the issues surrounding union dues. Ignoring problems and forcing individual workers to fight their unions in court is unacceptable. As long as federal law requires employers to bargain with unions and gives unions exclusive representation rights over their members, individual workers must have the freedom to decide, up front, whether their hard-earned money should be used for non-collective bargaining purposes, including political campaigns. The policies embodied in the Worker Paycheck Fairness Act would help make it possible for workers to exercise, in full measure, the political freedoms that are the birthright of all Americans.
D. Mark Wilson is the Rebecca Lukens Fellow in Labor Policy at The Heritage Foundation.