Oct 18

Union Dues and Do Nots

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Unions are giving away a lot of bread to Democrats. Luckily, a

Unions are giving away a lot of bread to Democrats. Luckily, a “financial core” union member can object.

Look (out) for the union label. Union bosses spent $4.4 billion on federal election campaigns and lobbying from 2005 to 2011 – about $2.6 billion more than what Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has grossed since 1937.1 Nearly all of that $4.4 billion was on behalf of Democrats. But not every union member wants to be a human ATM for the Democrat Party. In point of fact, 35% of union members ignored the AFL-CIO’s all-out campaign for Barack Obama and voted for Republican Mitt Romney.2 Luckily for “financial core” union members, unions may not blow their “agency fees” on political campaigns.3

I. Non-Membership Has Its Privileges: General Motors and Beck

Typically, a union will bargain with an employer for one of two types of “union security” clauses as part of a collective bargaining agreement: (1) an agreement whereby the employer must fire an employee who fails to join the union within a certain period of time after hire (i.e., a “union” shop” agreement); or (2) an agreement whereby the employer must deduct the equivalent of union dues (“agency fees” or “representation fees”) from the paycheck of an employee who fails to join the union within a certain period of time after his date of hire (i.e., an “agency shop” agreement).

The landmark Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 authorizes states to outlaw “union security” clauses by enacting so-called “right to work” laws. Twenty-five states, including such stalwart union states as Indiana (2012), Michigan (2012), and Wisconsin (2015), have enacted such laws. California hasn’t. In fact, Proposition 75,  the Terminator’s “paycheck protection” ballot initiative,  flopped worse than Last Action Hero. Thus, an employer and a union can still bind a California employee to a “union security” agreement and make him become a union member as a condition of getting or keeping a job.

But being a “union member” in good standing doesn’t require an employee to be a full-fledged member. In NLRB v. General Motors Corp., 373 U.S. 734 (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court “whittled down” the term “membership” to its “financial core.” That means an employee who’s subject to a “union shop” agreement need only pay initiation fees and union dues to be a “member” of a union. In other words, an employee subject to a “union shop” agreement may “resign” as a full-fledged member of the union to become a “financial core” member (i.e., a dues-paying non-member) and still keep his job.4

But not every “financial core” member appreciates his union blowing his agency fees on political candidates he would never vote for or on political causes he doesn’t believe in. Fortunately for such a member, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988) that a “union security” agreement doesn’t allow a union, over a “financial core” member’s objection, to spend his agency fees on activities that are “unrelated” to the union’s representational role: collective bargaining, contract administration, or grievance adjustment.5

II. Unions Must Timely Notify All Employees of Their Beck Rights

Beck rights wouldn’t mean much if a union didn’t have to notify employees of their rights. The union must therefore notify an employee of two basic rights: (1) he has the right to become a “financial core” member (subject to the duty to pay agency fees)6; and (2) he has the right, once he becomes a “financial core” member, to  object to paying for non-representational expenses, to obtain a reduction in agency fees for such activities, to receive sufficient information to enable him to intelligently decide whether to object, and to receive information about any internal union procedures for filing objections.7

The timing of the Beck notice is also critical. The union must notify a non-member employee of his Beck rights at or before the time the union first seeks to bind him to a “union security” agreement.8 For example, a union must give Beck notice to a new hire at the time of hire. In addition, the union must notify a full-fledged member of his Beck rights if it didn’t do so when he entered the bargaining unit.9 No particular form of notice is necessary; the union need only make reasonable efforts to notify employees of their Beck rights.10 The union doesn’t have to notify an employee of his Beck rights more than once.11

III. Non-Members May Challenge the Misuse of Their Agency Fees

If a union fully and timely notifies all employees in the bargaining unit of their Beck rights, the union will have no further obligation under Beck, unless a “financial core” member objects to paying the portion of his agency fees that covers political and other non-representational union expenses. The union can require a Beck objector to mail his Beck objection during a particular annual window period.12 The union may not, however, thwart a Beck objection by requiring the objector to send his objection by registered or certified mail or, if he has several objections, to mail them individually.13

The union’s receipt of a Beck objection requires the union to stop charging the objector for the portion of agency fees that it spends for non-representational purposes. The union must inform the objector of the percentage of reduction in dues for objecting “financial core” members, the basis for the calculation, and the right to challenge it.14 The information must be enough to enable him to determine whether to challenge the union’s allocations.15 Thus, a union must give him a summary of major categories of “chargeable” and “non-chargeable” expenditures ((Id.)) and verify by audit that it made them.16

  1. Guinness World Records 60 at 160–161 (2015 ed.). 

  2. Elizabeth Dexheimer. Labor’s 65% Love for Obama: Trumka Says Not Stopping There. Bloomberg.com. (Nov. 7, 2012). 

  3. Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988). 

  4. NLRB v. General Motors Corp., 373 U.S. 734 (1963). 

  5. Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988). 

  6. California Saw & Knife Works, 320 NLRB 224, 235 n. 57 (1995). 

  7. Id. at 233. 

  8. Id. at 231. 

  9. Paperworkers Local 1033 (Weyerhauser Paper Co.), 320 NLRB 349, 350 (1995). 

  10. Id

  11. Id

  12. California Saw & Knife Works, 320 NLRB at 236. 

  13. Id. at 236-237. 

  14. Id. at 233. 

  15. Id. at 240. 

  16. Television Artists AFTRA (KGW Radio), 327 NLRB 474, 477 (1999). 

Ben Rothman, Esq.

Ben Rothman is a Los Angeles-based attorney practicing in the areas of personal injury, employment, and workers' compensation on a "no recovery, no fee" basis. Call him at (424) 465-2948 for a free, no-obligation consultation.