House Subcommittee Holds Beck Hearing

On May 10, the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Educ. & the Workforce Committee held a hearing on workers’ rights not to become union members and not to pay dues for unions’ nonrepresentational activities and to investigate how union bosses abuse such rights under the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Communications Workers of Am. v. Beck.  Beck held that employees covered by a union security clause in a collective bargaining agreement who choose not to become union members and object to having their dues spent on political and other nonrepresentational activities only can be charged agency fees for union activities related to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.

“Based on the evidence I have seen, I am convinced that some union locals do, in fact, regularly trample on the rights of individuals in far excess of the scope of their permissible authority,” Subcommittee Chairman Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) said. “Too many workers seem to get the run-around when they try to exercise their rights.”

Norwood devoted most of his opening statement to discussing unions’ use of dues money to support political activities, such as opposing President Bush’s proposed tax cut. He cited a poll showing that 57% of Americans and 55% of union members support the proposed tax cut. “Here is just one example of money being spent in areas potentially outside of the union’s permissible boundaries. This example is important because it points out an obvious disconnect between the spending habits of some unions and what seems to be the true preferences of the union’s rank and file,” Norwood said.

Three workers testified about their post-Beck problems in exercising their rights to not pay dues for nonrepresentational activities. A United Airlines sales and reservations agent Janet Cope said the Int’l Ass’n of Machinists, after narrowly winning a representation election in 1999, told members of her bargaining unit they must join the union and could be fired if they failed to do so. She said she has a continuing problem with the union over the timely rebate of the $8.27 of her $34.67 monthly dues and expressed doubt that the remaining portion actually is spent on representational activities. Cope was covered by the recent class action suit that resulted in an injunction requiring IAM to recognize continuing objections, rather than requiring nonmembers who did not want their dues used for nonrepresentational purposes to file an objection every year.  See Lutz v. IAM, 121 F. Supp. 2d 498 (E.D. Va. 2000).

Aircraft mechanic Craig Sickler objected to IAM’s annual notice to workers that they can pay less than full dues if they object to dues being used for nonrepresentational purposes. The “Notice to Employees Subject to Union Security Clauses,” which Sickler thought referred only to employees of unions, is “deceptively named” and “buried in fine print” in the union’s quarterly magazine, he said. Sickler criticized the all-or-nothing approach of barring from the union those who object to dues being used for political purposes and not allowing them to vote on contracts and other matters affecting the bargaining unit. Sickler was fired by US Airways for failure to pay union dues, won a suit against the union, and was reinstated one and one-half years later with $82,500 in back pay.

Robert Penrod described his experiences with an Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters local that demanded he pay 94% of full union dues and provided what he considered a woefully inadequate financial disclosure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Penrod v. NLRB, 203 F.3d 41 (D.C. Cir. 2000), reversed an NLRB decision finding that the disclosure was legally sufficient. The case, which began in 1990, is once again pending before the board.

Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) congratulated the employee witnesses for showing “a hell of a lot of guts” in fighting their unions. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) expressed concern that it took NLRB five years to decide Penrod’s case, which she said involved “a blatant abuse” of his rights.

Raymond J. LaJeunesse, vice president of the Nat’l Right to Work Legal Def. Fdn., said implementation of Beck is “a serious problem.” He described several obstacles employees face, including union security clauses, which he called “compulsory unionism agreements,” and the misleading language of such clauses approved by the Supreme Court in Marquez v. Screen Actors Guild, 525 U.S. 33 (1998), that create the impression union membership is required. “Whether out of ignorance or deliberate deception, union officials often tell workers that they must join or be fired” or will be fired if they resign membership, LaJeunesse said. He asserted that employers also are at fault by not understanding the law or by refusing to inform employees of their rights out of a desire to avoid “legal trouble with the union.”

Another obstacle to exercising Beck rights is the legal requirement that employees who want to refrain from supporting union political activity must resign from the union, LaJeunesse said. As a result, he said, objectors “forgo important employment rights that accompany union membership, such as the rights to vote on ratification of contracts and participate in selecting the union representatives who negotiate their terms and conditions of employment.” LaJeunesse also criticized approval by NLRB and the courts of inadequate procedures for giving employees notice of their rights and disclosing their expenditures. [BNA 5/8/01]