(AUD) is a pro-labor, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the principles and practices of democratic trade unionism in the North American labor movement.

Withholding dues

A: Sounds like you want to get the union to represent you better, and are looking for ways to put pressure on your union officials. At first blush, “hitting them in the pocket book” sounds like a reasonable tactic. However, withholding dues (some people call it a “dues strike”) hurts you and your fellow employees far more than it hurts an autocratic or unprincipled union official. The best way to make your union work for you is to organize from within the union.

First, let’s talk about what it means to pay dues. In all unions, you have to pay dues to be a member. The union uses that money to cover the costs of representing its members, i.e., for negotiating and enforcing contracts. Dues cover union office rent, officer and staff salaries, telephones, copiers, postage, rental of meeting space, legal bills, arbitrations, and strike benefits. A portion of your dues, usually called the “per capita,” goes to the international union, the AFL-CIO (for affiliated unions), and possibly also to an intermediate body such as a district council. Lastly, a relatively small portion (in most cases) of members’ dues are used by the union for political purposes, like lobbying for legislation to protect members’ interests, taking out ads against “Fast Track,” or supporting a candidate for state office. (Union dues may not be used to support candidates for federal office.)

In most states all employees must either pay union dues or, if they choose not to be union members, an “agency fee” that covers their fair share of the cost of workplace representation. This is called “union security” in the contract. Agency fee payers have no right to attend and vote at meetings and in officer elections, and no right to ratify their contracts. (There is also a rarely-used provision in the National Labor Relations Act for “deauthorization” of union security agreements. Under this provision, if over 50% of the workers covered by the contract vote to “deauthorize” the union security agreement, the workers can not be required to pay dues as a condition of employment.)

In so-called “right-to-work” states, employees cannot be required even to pay an “agency fee”, i.e., to contribute their fair share toward the union costs of giving them workplace representation. The union still has a legal obligation to provide representation — for example in grievances and negotiations — even for workers who do not pay their fair share. (It is easy to see why anti-union employers, and their friends at the “Right to Work Committee” support “right to work” legislation.)

“Beck” is a 1988 US Supreme Court decision that says that unions cannot force non-members to pay a full agency fee if any portion is used to pay the costs of union political activities. As a result, unions may be required to calculate that percent of their total budget allocated to political activities, and refund that (usually very small) portion of the member’s agency fee.

So, what is the effect if workers drop their union membership and become agency fee payers, if they request a refund of the political part of their dues, or, in “right-to-work” states, drop their membership and discontinue any and all contributions to the union? Does any of this make the union leadership more responsive to your interests?

Actually, in our experience it makes the union leadership even less accountable. As a union member, you can go to union meetings, vote in elections, run for office, etc. You are in a position to press for change, to be a squeaky wheel that will get some grease. It is an uphill struggle, but by organizing and collaborating with your co-workers you can use your rights in the union to bring pressure on your union representatives, and even “throw the bums out” and replace them with union officers who are accountable to the members. That’s where AUD can be of help. We counsel members about they can be more effective by exercising their rights as “union citizens” to make their unions stronger, more democratic, and more responsive.

If you “throw away” your union membership, you lose the chance to make change and to have any impact on the union leadership. And, if you change your mind, the union may not have to take you back. Even if you do rejoin, you may be ineligible to run for office for several years.

Finally, a strategy that takes you out of the union not only weakens the union, it plays into the hands of management. If your employer gets away with murder now, with a weak union leadership that does a bad job representing the members, think how much worse they can get with a union leadership that is even weaker and faces no opposition from within.