Missouri Union Goes on Trial for Forced Dues

NLRB will hear workers’ complaint against electricians’ union

Construction workers and union members hold a rally in Columbus Circle in NYC
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A Missouri worker is accusing his union of violating his rights to pay partial union dues.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 53 will head to trial before the National Labor Relations Board, the federal government's top labor arbiter, to contest accusations that it illegally withheld information about dues from an objecting worker. The complaint, filed by James Feagin, an employee at New-Mac Electric Cooperative, Inc., alleges that the union did not provide adequate accounting explanations for agency fees, which allow workers to pay partial fees to cover representational or grievance costs without funding political or lobbying activities. Feagin was forced to hand over partial fee payments that were the equivalent of 94 percent of dues payments, which came to $38 per month or between 1 and 4 percent of pay. The lack of transparency violated his labor rights, according to the complaint.

"Respondent [the union] has failed to provide the Charging Party … with an adequate explanation" of its spending, the complaint says. "Respondent has been restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of [their] rights."

Brett Stone, the business manager of Local 53, said the union was not surprised with the complaint because Feagin had been a dissenter for several years. The union denies all charges in connection to the case and argues its breakdown of representational and political activities is appropriate.

"We used to operate off of the numbers based on what the national [union] spent for agency fees, but we decided to have an auditor go back and look at what we as local spent," he said. "That's when the fees went up and that's when he complained."

The national IBEW spent more than $5 million on political activities and lobbying in 2017 compared with $66 million on representational activities, according to its most recent labor filings. That is a stark increase to how Local 53 spent its dues money with only about $51,000 going to politics compared with $1 million on representation. 

The complaint comes in the midst of Missouri voters deciding on the state right-to-work law, which forbids employers from mandating union dues or fees as a condition of employment. The case was brought by the National Right to Work Committee, which also spent heavily in the Tuesday voter referendum.

"Feagins chose to hold IBEW union officials accountable for their greedy neglect of employees’ rights," NRTW Foundation president Mark Mix said in a statement. "As long as union officials have the power to force financial support from the workers they claim to represent, these types of violations will continue as union bosses seek to line their pockets with illegal forced dues."

Other labor watchdogs are watching the case closely. Akash Chougule of Americans for Prosperity, which has been involved in an education campaign on right to work, said such cases are common and underscore the need for union transparency.

"IBEW's refusal to disclose its agency fee calculation raises even more serious concerns about the extent to which he is being forced to fund a political agenda against his will," Chougule said. "IBEW should come clean, but the easiest way to remedy this situation is to provide Mr. Feagins the right-to-work without being forced to pay union dues or fees against his will."

Missouri voters will decide on right to work in a Tuesday referendum. The NLRB is scheduled to hold a prehearing conference on September 13 in an attempt to settle the dispute. If that hearing is unsuccessful, the agency will hear the case on October 10.