In theory at least, workers who refuse to join the union outright may have their union dues limited to a pro-rata share of the union's expenditures that are directly attributable to representation, such as collective bargaining, contract administration and grievances. Of particular importance, nonmembers are not obligated to pay for the costs of union political activity. This right of nonmembers to limit their dues payments in this way was established in a series of court cases which culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Beck v. Communication Workers of America.[7]

While information on union spending patterns had been extremely limited for decades prior to the 2003 update of union LM-2 reports, union members and interested citizens had some glimpses at what lay beyond the curtain. The little that was visible provided grounds for concern.

The rights of nonunion members to limit their dues under Beck created one source of information on union spending; as part of the process of determining the correct reduction in dues, unions are expected to give nonmembers who invoke their rights under Beck an accounting of union spending on "chargeable" expenses (related to representation) and nonchargeable expenses (political, social and charitable). On rare occasions, nonmembers have successfully challenged a union's reckoning in court, and in the process more information was revealed as part of the discovery process.

It is very likely that the majority of nonmembers do not receive a refund that comes close to the amount to which they are entitled, however. Relinquishing union membership and requesting a dues reduction are separate steps, and while they can be taken simultaneously, not all workers who leave the union do so. The reductions that unions offer are likely to overstate the amount that they spend on representing workers: The National Education Association and its affiliates, including the Michigan Education Association, typically offers workers who object to paying for nonrepresentational activities a reduction of between 20 percent and 33 percent.[8] Our examination of MEA and NEA spending raises questions as to whether the NEA spends much more than 50 percent of its funds on representation. There is reason to believe that the actual amount could be even lower than that. In one case involving an MEA affiliate at Ferris State University, where an agency fee payer was able to litigate to the point where the court examined specific union spending items, "chargeable" expenses were limited to around 10 percent of regular NEA/MEA dues.[9]

In addition, there have been numerous accounts - sometimes anecdotal, sometimes based on union officials' own statements - indicating extensive union political involvement. In 2007, for instance, the Change to Win coalition, a group of seven unions that broke away from AFL-CIO two years earlier, announced that it was establishing a $14 million fund dedicated to "education campaigns centered around politics and several issues, notably including health care and the right to organize." The resolution creating the fund specified that the money would be used to "build a state-of-the-art coordinated political program to ensure the election of a pro-labor president in 2008 and pro-labor majorities in the Senate and House in order to pass the Employee Freedom of Choice Act."[10] In another case, in 2001 an IRS review of union finances showed that unions had failed to report millions of dollars of taxable political spending, including voter drives and advertisements. The AFL-CIO allegedly spent $35 million on political activities in 1996 but reported none of this to IRS.[11]


[7] 487 U.S. 735 (1988).

[8] This estimate is based on information packets prepared by NEA and MEA and given to public school employees who requested Beck objector status in 2001 and 2007, which were then forwarded to the Mackinac Center.

[9] Hunter, Robert, Compulsory Union Dues in Michigan, The Mackinac Center for Public Policy (1997), pp 15-17. Online at: http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=235.

[10] Gruenberg, Mark, Change to Win Federation Sets Plans for Politics, Organizing, Workday Minnesota, Sept. 26, 2007, available online at http://www.workdayminnesota.org/index.php?news_6_3306.

[11] Margasak, Larry, Politics: Unions Reporting No Taxable Political Expenses Despite Ads and Activism, Study Says, Nando Times, 2001.