If workers are free to join a union, presumably they ought to be free to leave one. At least that’s what a number of employees at a Butte, Montana supermarket believe. It appears they’ve got a sympathetic audience in the National Labor Relations Board. This past spring, two Safeway employees, Gerald Rasmussen and Carla Crandall, filed separate charges with the NLRB against their union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 4. They and other workers charged that the local, illegally, had deducted dues from paychecks without employee consent and threatened to persuade Safeway management to fire them. In response, the employees voted to decertify the local as their collective-bargaining agent, an action that the union has tried to block. Now the NLRB tentatively has sided with the workers, agreeing to take action against the union.
The National Labor Relations Act long has given unions the authority to negotiate “security agreements” as part of collective-bargaining contracts. These agreements require an employer to fire any employee who either refuses to join the union or, in lieu of joining, pay “agency fees” to the union. Under the Taft-Hartley amendments to NLRA, however, individual states retain the authority to enact Right to Work laws that override such forced-dues clauses. At present, 22 states have such legislation. And even in the 28 non-Right to Work states – Montana being one of them – workers covered by a contract retain the right to decide whether they want their union to continue to represent them. The Safeway employees decided “no.” They held a vote this April to end their relationship with UFCW Local 4. Rasmussen, Crandall and other dissenting employees sent letters to local officials indicating their intentions.
The union, displeased by this turn of events, invalidated the results on procedural grounds. The letters, they argued, were not notarized, sent by certified mail in separate envelopes or accompanied by copies of applicable NLRB decisions and Supreme Court rulings. They also allegedly threatened to fire the workers. But the union’s use of procedural arguments, questionable on its own merits, runs counter to established legal precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court on several occasions, most forcefully in Communications Workers of America v. Beck (1988), has ruled that union officials may not compel employees to remain nor pay dues or fees beyond purposes of collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance procedure.
The NLRB, having combined the complaints by Rasmussen and Crandall into a single case, has scheduled a hearing in September. The board is expected to bring formal charges against the union. The employees are getting help from the National Right to Work Legal Foundation in Springfield, Va. “No one should be forced to pay dues to a union,” said Stefan Gleason, foundation vice president. “These sorts of abuses will continue to plague workers in states like Montana, where there is no Right to Work law to ensure that payment of union dues is strictly voluntary.” (National Right to Work Legal Foundation, 8/6/07).