Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Union Dues and Don'ts

Mark Graber

When I was a teenager, I sold soda and sometimes peanuts at the Nassau coliseum for (then) Long Island Nets and New York Islander games. A certain percentage of our earnings went to the vendors union. We had no choice in the matter. The benefit, we were told, is that they had to use us when we showed up for work, even if we only sold water. Since we worked solely on commission, this was not much of a benefit (though we did get to see games, sort of). I also had the sense that protesting was not advisable.

When teaching Karl Klare's essay on unionism at the University of Texas, I asked my students about their personal experiences with unions. While some had no stories, and a few had positive accounts, most of the students, even the liberal students, had had negative interactions with unions. Kid after kid told of having to contribute earnings to a union on summer jobs with little expectation of any benefits in return. Rarely did union officers even try to explain the logic of the system to them, that their money was going to some higher cause. Rather than appear as the bodyguard defending the relatively defenseless against corporate bullies, the union acted the part of the bully from my perspective as a vendor and from the perspective of too many students. In theory, the class liberals defended unions, but few did so on the basis of positive personal experience.

I thought about those experiences when reading today that the Supreme Court will decide whether states may forbid unions from spending on political causes certain union fees paid by workers who would rather not join the union. As a legal matter, I am inclined to think that the state can require unions (and corporations) to have segregated funds, given that the state law also mandates that workers who would rather not join the union must nevertheless pay agency fees to the union. I have not, however, studied the issue that closely (there is a potential pyrrhic victory here, namely a pro-union decision could have implications for the relationship between money and speech that I do not favor). As a personal matter, I wonder whether the right to spend these fees on political causes is worth the bother. If my experiences and the experiences of too many young people I teach are typical, and many of the young people I teach come from working class backgrounds, unions might benefit more from trying to make more friends than fighting for the constitutional right to spend other people's money on political causes.


a number of thoughts come to mind.

the post gives me a moment or two of nostalgia, as i was also working at the same time in the same capacity as prof. graber. in what became a precursor for things to come, however, while mark was off trying to sell generally stale soda that by game's end was very messy and sticky, and he only "sort of" watched the games, i used my lofty position selling peanuts, soda and the absolutely sticky and disgusting cotton candy to stake out a position in the stands where i could sit and watch the games, and have the kids in the stands send their fathers to me to get the goodies, rather than the other way around. so life imitates, well.... life. mark worked his rear end off. i sat on mine, and we both earned about the same amount, but i got to watch the games.

on a more serious note, after reading the post, i checked with my local in house union member, who tells me that the members of the teacher's union in new york state are required to pay the portion of their dues which are, in effect, agency fees for negotiating the teachers' contracts. the teachers are not, however, required to pay for other matters, such as the union's administrative costs, or more to the point of this post, that portion of the dues that would go towards advocating political causes.

the interesting fact is that there is apparently a breakdown in the dues statement/invoice given to the teachers delineating the portion of the dues going to negotiation and representation costs and those going to the union's political activities. there is, however, nothing in writing on the statement or on anthing else provided by the union for that matter, notifying the teachers that they are not obligated to pay that portion of the dues dedicated to the union's political activities. one wonders how many more of the teachers would opt not to pay the dues if they were told that payment of this portion of their dues was not mandatory on their part. one also wonders if the unions should be required to state in writing that this portion of the dues is not mandatory.

as far as the case now before the supreme court is concerned, it would seem to me, even though i generally consider myself more a liberal than a conservative, and unionism is generally viewed as such, as a matter of free speech, unions should not be allowed to deduct monies from members for purposes of pursuing political objectives if the union member objects, and especially if the member disagrees with the political objectives the union is pursuing, using the member's money as the financing engine.

I think you might be misreading the question presented. It is already well-settled that dues-paying nonmembers of labor unions have a First Amendment right to opt out of the politicking component of the dues. See, e.g., Communication Workers v. Beck.

The question in Washington v. Washington NEA is whether the state can force the union to adopt an "opt-in" procedure rather than "opt-out."

This may be a bit off-topic...

I don't have much experience with unions in the US. Whatever their negative sides here, I assume they must pale in comparison to European unions, specifically French. God, how I hate them.

It seems everytime I go Paris, some important union or another is on strike. One trip it is the baggage handlers at the airport. Cost to me: missed connection to the Middle East. Next trip, the taxi and metro workers are on strike. How the **** am I supposed to get around? Walking ten miles from my hostel to some landmark gets tedious after a while. I could go no...

Of course, the general populace in in France has a completely different attitude towards unions than most US citizens. Heck, the unions there seem to strike just for the fun of it. Okay, end rant.

Unions may have one time served a useful purpose when there were fewer protections for the average worker. Now though, they strike me as mostly liabilities to our broader welfare. Take the complete decline of the steel industry or now the auto industry. Caveat, of course, other countries, particularly the Asian Tigers have much lower labor costs which we couldn't really match even without unions. But, if the steel industry had been freer to lower wages reasonably, we might have saved a piece of it. Let's hope our auto industry doesn't follow "Big Steel."

p.s. sorry for the random rants

My experience as a member of a union--a long time ago--differs dramatically from Mark's experience and those of his students. And most of my co-unionists had similar (positive) experiences and relied enthusiastically on the union. (Mine was a full-time job.)

That aside, if unions effectively procure benefits for workers that none could garner on his or her own, and if spending on political causes contributes to those achievements, why shouldn't unions be permitted to spend money on those causes? This is an old but, in my view, untired position. It covers political spending as well as requiring workers in a union shop to be members. Of course, it's fashionable today to bash unions, and some unions deserve bashing to be sure. But vigorous unionization positively benefits workers even if some summer workers fail to receive those benefits. Why I would even be in favor of unionizing law professors, although most, if not all, of my colleague would recoil at this suggestion.

Oh, my God, how horrible, requiring them to get the permission of people (Who didn't want to join in the first place!) before spending their money on politics! [/sarcasm]

If unions didn't function as a way of extracting money from conservatives, and spending it on liberal causes, would you have to think about this for even an instant?

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We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.
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