In Michigan, there are more than 600,000 workers who are represented by labor unions and virtually all of them are required to pay union dues as a condition of employment, whether they are actually members of a union or not.
The amount each pays annually varies considerably, but often is at least $500. Some of that money goes to cover collective bargaining and related costs, such as grievance handling and the administration of the collective bargaining agreement.
But what of the money which is spent not on collective bargaining, but is devoted instead to the political and ideological causes chosen by the union leaders? A great many workers object to having to subsidize those activities, either because they disagree with those causes, or simply because they have more pressing uses for their money.
Lawsuits contending that it is a violation of the statutory and Constitutional rights of workers to compel them to further the political agendas of union leaders have reached the Supreme Court on several occasions, and the Court has consistently ruled that workers cannot be forced to pay for more than the "financial core" of collective bargaining.
In one of those cases, Communication Workers v. Beck, the trial court found that the union was using only 21 cents out of every dues dollar for purposes germane to collective bargaining. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that Mr. Beck's rights had been violated, and ordered that his money be refunded. (On April 13, President Bush issued an executive order to begin enforcing "Beck" rights for workers compelled to pay union dues.)
The Court's most recent case on this issue, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, involved six faculty members at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. The Court held in 1991 that the plaintiffs had been illegally required to pay for an array of union activities, including politicking, public relations, and litigation.
Presently, at least twelve lawsuits have been filed in Michigan against various unions for improper expenditures of dues money. But if the Supreme Court has ruled on the issue, why is there a need for any more lawsuits?
The answer is that the previous cases created legal precedents for workers to rely on, but they are not self-enforcing. Many unions regard it as cheaper to lose an occasional lawsuit than to have to comply fully with the law. They realize that a worker's prospect of taking on a squad of union attorneys in a battle which could last for years (it took twelve years to finally settle Harry Beck's case), cost a great deal of time and money, and lead to personal harassment, will deter most people from asserting their rights.
Furthermore, the union hierarchy can make it difficult for a member to even find out how his money is being used. Often, member requests for documentation on union expenditures are met either with stonewalling or disclosures vague enough to defeat the inquirer's purpose. Unions do not have to make detailed, audited financial statements to federal or state governments, thus making it easy to hide the real use of money.
For example, it is widely known that unions often make their physical assets (buildings, telephones, computers, etc.) available to their favored candidates, and that union personnel often are directly involved in campaigns. None of this needs to be reported, however. Without a lawsuit and the power to subpoena records, Harry Beck would never have been able to establish that his money was being misused by the union.
How can workers be protected against these kinds of union abuses? The ideal solution would be to go beyond President Bush's recent executive order and change federal labor law so that each worker would be free to personally decide for himself which, if any, union he wanted to represent him. If workers were free to contract as they saw fit for whatever degree of representation service they desired, just as people are free to contract for whatever other services they want, the problem would disappear. Those unhappy with any aspect of their union's policy could simply decline to renew their affiliation. Unfortunately, Michigan can't change federal law.
However, nothing prevents states from enacting statutes designed to protect the Constitutional rights of their citizens. The Michigan Legislature could strengthen the Bush order and pass a law which would make it illegal for a union to spend the mandatory dues or fees of non-members on anything not directly germane to collective bargaining. The Legislature could pass a law requiring that unions collect any funds they wish to use for political and ideological purposes separately and voluntarily. The Legislature could pass a law requiring detailed, audited financial disclosures so that it would be possible to verify that unions were abiding by the law. In addition, the Legislature could mandate the posting of a notice informing workers of their rights.
Such a law--or laws--strongly enforced, would eliminate the problem at its source. If unions could not take money in excess of what they needed for collective bargaining in the first place, there would be no need for workers to go to court in order to get back money wrongfully spent.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." Four years now after the Supreme Court's landmark Beck decision, it's time for the Legislature to enact protections for the right of workers to make their own political judgments.