Oklahoma Seeking to Stop Union Payroll Deductions for Non-Members

Enforcing for the first time an administrative rule that has been on the books for five years, the Okla. Comm’r of Labor Brenda R. Wynn ordered a Tulsa employer to stop deducting the union dues of employees who resigned from their union. In a Feb. 12 letter to Baldwin Steel Co., Wynn demanded that the firm refrain from withholding union dues from the paychecks of 19 employees who resigned their membership from Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters Local 523 and asked that their dues no longer be deducted.

Wynn said the regulations implementing its wage law lists allowable deductions from employee paychecks, but that union dues are not an allowable deduction. The regulations are intended to protect employees who do not want money deducted from their paychecks without their permission

Reportedly, the regulation had never been enforced in terms of union dues or agency fees because no one had ever complained before. Here, a Baldwin official reportedly contacted the Okla. Dep’t of Labor and reported that Baldwin was deducting dues from the paychecks of employees who had resigned from the union and had asked Baldwin to stop deducting the dues. The employer was reportedly seeking guidance on whether it had to continue making the deductions as demanded by the union.

“This is a worker’s rights issue,” Wynn said. “At least 19 workers have told both the union and their employer they want to keep the fruits of their labor. As labor commissioner, I will do everything within my authority to promote the welfare of Oklahoma workers.”

In her letter, Wynn said that if Baldwin did not comply with the regulation she would initiate hearings and subpoena witnesses to “fully investigate this matter and, at the conclusion thereof, I will issue an appropriate (and binding) order as the facts may warrant.” She pointed out that if Baldwin is found to have violated the regulation, it will be liable to the employees “for the amount of any illegal deductions, plus liquidated damages, costs, attorney’s fees, and any other remedies or penalties as provided” in the law.

According to Local 523 president Randy Campbell, Baldwin is obligated to continue deducting dues from employees who sign dues checkoff cards unless the employee complies with the requirement that he/she revoke the checkoff in writing during a specified time. He explained that the dues checkoff provision in the contract specifies that an employee’s checkoff authorization renews automatically unless the employee sends written notice to the union asking to revoke checkoff at least 60 days but not more than 75 days before the anniversary date of the signing of the authorization card. For example, he said, if an employee signed a card for dues checkoff on Feb. 1, 2001, he/she would have to revoke the authorization in the last two weeks of Nov.

Baldwin is still considering its options, according to president Bob Welter. Welter said that after several employees asked Baldwin to stop withholding union dues from their paychecks, Baldwin asked the union to “agree that those employees who have resigned from the union should no longer have union dues withheld from their paychecks. The union vehemently disagreed and threatened to sue Baldwin if it stopped withholding dues from the employees’ paychecks or refused to pay those dues to the union until such time as the union formally advised Baldwin to stop. The union indicated that the time frame in which an employee could cease paying dues was controlled by internal union rules and that Baldwin would be guilty of unfair labor practices if it ceased withholding and remitting union dues for these employees,” he said.

Campbell disputed the claim that the union threatened to sue Baldwin if it failed to withhold dues. He said that when the parties were negotiating a new contract in Oct. 2001 Baldwin proposed deleting the union security clause and the dues checkoff because of a new right-to-work law in the state that took effect in Sept. 2001. Campbell said he told management that he would not delete the dues checkoff clause because Baldwin was obligated to deduct dues for those employees who have signed authorization cards. When asked what would happen if Baldwin took out the language, Campbell said he replied that Baldwin may have a problem and might have to pay the dues for the workers.

W. Kirk Turner of Newton, O’Connor, Turner & Ketchum, attorneys for Baldwin, told BNA Feb. 14 that Baldwin is “looking at all the issues.”  According to Turner, the State is not saying that the union cannot collect dues but rather that the employer cannot withhold dues under the regulation. “My client is in the middle,” he said. “It’s the employees’ money that is being withheld. The employees and the state are telling them not to withhold the money, while the union is telling them to withhold the dues,” he added.

Reportedly the newly enacted right-to-work law was the “catalyst” for the 19 employees asking the company to stop deducting their dues.

The regulations prohibit all payroll deductions except those mandated by statute, court order, or the rule itself. Under the regulation an employer and an employee can agree to only five categories of payroll deductions. “A union dues check-off agreement does not fall within the parameters of the five categories of deductions lawfully permitted by” the statute.  Wynn wrote in her letter to the company.  [BNA 2/19/02]