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Paying Your Dues and the Right to Refuse

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

You can thank Harry Beck. During the 1980s, Beck was a member in good standing of the Communications Workers of America. Each pay cycle, Harry Beck observed deductions of union dues from his hard-earned wages. But when Beck found out that seventy-nine percent of the money collected from him was being utilized for purposes with which he disagreed, his reaction was the very same one that initially ushered in collective bargaining in America. He got mad.

His anger ultimately led him to the steps of the United States Supreme Court. In 1988, the High Court held that federal law only authorizes unions to collect from their members those dues necessary to the unions' role as the representative for workers when dealing with labor-management issues.

In 1992, then President George Bush issued an executive order that obligated all government contractors to notify their employees of the refund rights established by Harry Beck's lawsuit. The Clinton administration repealed this decision soon after taking office. The right of workers to this refund has been a well-kept secret ever since.

In California, where cutting edge measures are commonplace, a new ballot proposal has emerged that could very well be called the Harry Beck Proposition. In the tradition of California initiatives, it has been dubbed Proposition 226. No doubt, there will be a vigorous debate, and distortions will be disseminated from proponents on both sides of the issue. Despite the likelihood of a nasty campaign, this proposition draws much needed attention to the matter of determining what the proper use of union dues should be.

Unions can legally negotiate contracts with management that make the renumeration of dues a prerequisite to employment. The outcome for workers is quite simple. No dues, no job. In twenty-one states, this is not the case because of "right to work" legislation. However, California is not included in this group and, as a condition to staying employed, workers represented by unions are forced to pay dues that are used for political purposes.

Numerous controversial uses of workers' dues without their consent or knowledge have led to the drafting of this proposition. For example, in 1996, the Teamsters spent approximately $200,000 in an effort to pass a California proposition to legalize marijuana. In another instance, union members' wages were used to oppose the controversial "three-strikes-you're-out" anti-crime initiative.

This new proposition, in effect, raises the question of whether the representation of workers in the collective bargaining process should involve spending workers' dues on political concerns rather than strictly on items associated with employment such as health insurance or pension plans.

Proposition 226 will require employees' permission before taking money from paychecks and doling it out it for politically related matters. The measure requires that employers and unions have their respective constituents fill out a one-page form prior to allocating any portion of the dues collected for political campaigns. The consent form specified in the proposition indicates that an employee's authorization is voluntary. Moreover, the decision of a worker with respect to authorization may not affect the person's standing with an employer or union.

However, the initiative is not limited to the regulation of union organizations. It applies to employers as well. It requires both employers and unions to notify workers of their rights before any dues money is spent on extraneous issues.

One of the most fundamental notions in America is the idea that our citizenry should have a voice in the determination of how money that is extracted from their personal income should be appropriated. It is this very idea that gave birth to our nation. When the payment of dues is a condition of earning a living, it constitutes nothing less than a mandatory tax. If passed, this proposition will provide union members with advanced notice, fiscal representation and the opportunity to be heard. Additionally, it will hold union leaders accountable to those for whom they ostensibly work.

If the polls are to be believed, most voters have the impression that the passage of Proposition 226 will restore basic common sense to a system that has operated without seeking direction or consent from constituents. In an age of supposed electoral apathy, it is encouraging that some still care enough to advocate that their money be spent in accordance with their convictions.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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