Compulsory unionism faces worker challenge

July 06, 1999|By Reed Larson

THE STATE of Michigan, if you recall your geography, looks somewhat like a mitten, with the area covering the four fingers on the left and the thumb pointing right.

The place where the thumb and fingers converge is where you'll find the small town of Pigeon, Mich.

If you can visualize the hand and thumb being squeezed together, you will understand how Gary Bradley and some of his colleagues at Huron Castings, a small factory in Pigeon, felt last year.

That's when officials of the United Steel Workers tried to put the squeeze on them to join the union -- even though they had every right to reject union membership.

But they were determined to stand up for their rights.

Thanks to a series of federal court decisions, the most that can be required of workers covered by union contracts in the 29 states without right-to-work laws is the payment of a portion of union dues, not actual membership.

Just as important, workers can only be forced to pay that portion of the dues used for collective bargaining purposes, not the portion used for politics and lobbying, two of Big Labor's favorite pastimes. The Supreme Court spelled this out in its landmark 1988 Beck decision.

So Mr. Bradley and a few others refused to sign the membership cards.

As he told the Detroit Free Press, "The card basically said you give up all your rights, and the union makes decisions for you. I didn't want to give up my rights, especially the right to keep working, even if union officials call a strike."

As is often the case, Mr. Bradley received no help from his employer, who basically reinforced the union warning that he had better sign up.

Mr. Bradley turned to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which provides free legal assistance to workers suffering injustices arising out of compulsory unionism.

His attorneys filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the contract -- if it required actual union membership -- was illegal.

The NLRB agreed, so Mr. Bradley and some 80 of his colleagues received dues refunds, though they are still assessed a reduced fee.

The fee, under the law, is supposed to cover only that portion of the dues used for collective bargaining and contract maintenance. But how much is that?

Union officials, as you might imagine, want to squeeze as much as possible out of the workers and claim that just a tiny fraction of all dues money is used for politics -- a real fantasy in Michigan, where Big Labor and the Democratic party are "formal allies," in the words of one reporter.

Mr. Bradley and others are now considering litigation to see how much more their "reduced" fee needs to be reduced. Based on evidence in other cases, our guess is: a lot.

For example, a federal District Court in California recently ruled in favor of eight San Francisco Bay Area school teachers who challenged the California Teachers Association assertion that local union officials could avoid providing any disclosure to teachers about how their forced dues are spent.

Perhaps the union brass feared that others like the lead plaintiff, Dianne Foster, a 53-year-old math teacher, would know only too well when somebody is playing funny games with numbers.

U.S. District Judge Charles Legge, who presides in the case, has ordered CTA affiliates in eight Bay Area school districts to halt the collection of all dues pending a formal audit of their books, to determine how the money is being spent.

There are hints galore in other court cases. In one Michigan case involving teachers, the courts decided that just 10 percent of union dues were being spent on collective bargaining purposes; the rest were spent on politics and lobbying.

How these and the hundreds of other cases still pending are determined is important not only to the workers involved, but to all Americans. This is supposed to be the land of the free. The continuation of compulsory unionism abuses makes a mockery of this.

Fortunately, America is still the home of the brave.

And thanks to people like Gary Bradley and Dianne Foster, a steel worker and a schoolteacher, there are fewer pigeons and patsies willing to see their rights trampled by organized labor.

Reed Larson is founder and president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Springfield, Va.

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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