The former union member who won landmark worker protections from organized labor nearly 25 years ago said the Obama administration’s attempt to subvert those safeguards is responsible for the rise of right-to-work battles.
Harry Beck, a telecommunications engineer and a member of the Communication Workers of America union, challenged in 1966 the union’s practice of using dues for outside bargaining activity, including political activities. The Supreme Court handed Beck a landmark unanimous victory in 1988 when it ruled that unions had to offer employees the option of paying partial dues used exclusively for employer negotiations.
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Union members are required to inform the union that they only want to pay for collective bargaining in order to take advantage of their Beck rights. Union members are then assessed an "agency fee."
However, unions have a bad track record of charging workers their fair share and cooperating with individual appeals of allegedly inappropriate agency fees. Unions have minimized the Supreme Court’s ruling by tying up so-called "Beck rights" in endless red tape.
"The accounting knowledge it would take to understand [the financial records] is on the level of professional tax preparer or accountant," said David Phippen, a labor law attorney with Constangy, Brooks & Smith.
It does not help that politicians in the pocket of unions have made it so most union members have never heard of Beck rights, said Beck.
"It’s become a political football," Beck said. "When Republicans take office they mandate that employers and unions tell people about the rules. When Democrats take office they erase them to keep workers in the dark."
President Barack Obama issued an executive order rescinding the posting of Beck rights in workplaces that receive government contracts just ten days after being sworn in. The Department of Labor put the order into practice in June 2010.
Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), said the federal government’s refusal to safeguard Beck rights has been a major impetus behind the push for right-to-work laws at the state level.
"The pressure the individual workers are up against when they challenge union officials to open the books is immense," he said. "Right-to-work has helped individual workers because they can vote with their pocketbooks to hold the union accountable."
Phippen, a labor attorney, agrees that right-to-work enables members to pressure unions without a background in forensic accounting.
"In a right-to-work state, for employees subject to the [National Labor Relations Act] you don’t get into Beck problems because you are free from those bounds; people can resign from union membership and avoid union dues and fees," he said. "Beck only comes into play when people don’t have that option because of a valid union security clause."
Reform supporters say employees should not be forced to join a union and pay dues to an organization that finances political agendas which go against their core beliefs.
Marc Poulos, who is challenging Indiana’s right-to-work laws on behalf of the Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting (IIIFFC), said Beck rights provide plenty of protection to employees while ensuring they do not "free ride" on union contract benefits without paying union dues.
"If an individual does not agree with a union’s political agenda, they don’t have to pay for those dues," he said. "They only have to pay the portion of dues that covers their collective bargaining powers—they’re fully protected by Beck. To say otherwise is rhetoric, rather than reality."
Beck disagrees, pointing out that Congress has never codified the rule. Democrats have blocked multiple attempts to pass the rule into law. He now says right-to-work is the only way to protect union members from labor bosses.
"I never thought [right-to-work] would be necessary because I thought we’d have a Congress that would put Beck into law," he said. "I’m proud to see the states taking action to protect individuals when the federal government won’t."
"We have 64 cases before the [National Labor Relations Board] trying to force unions to open their books," Mix said. "They will tell a worker they don’t have any records or fudge the numbers to justify [the dues]."
The NRWC’s legal foundation has won several judgments against union officials for overcharging members on agency fees over the last 20 years. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in June that a California government worker’s union charged extra dues to as many as 36,000 non-members to finance four political campaigns against ballot initiatives.
Beck was motivated by similar problems with the Communications Workers of America. He set out "to be a good union man," but soured on the idea after dealing with union bigwigs.
"Here we are trying to be a voice in the world of union, to have our needs understood during bargaining time and nobody gives a hoot," he said. "They didn’t have our interests in mind—these guys only thought of one thing: their own power."
The union’s endorsement of George McGovern in 1972 pushed him to challenge the practice of paying for activities outside of contract negotiations. He had paid thousands of dollars in agency fees—nearly 80 percent of which was spent on non-bargaining activities— by the time his case appeared before the Supreme Court in 1988.
Unions spend tens of millions of dollars every election year campaigning on behalf of labor friendly candidates, the vast majority of whom are members of the Democratic Party. Obama and the Democratic Party benefitted from nearly $200 million in union political activism in 2008 before signing the executive order to scrub Beck.
The House Oversight Committee blasted such political tactics and called on unions to make their financial records accessible online in a February 2012 report.
"Many workers, unionized or otherwise, face barriers to determine how their dues or agency fees are being spent," the report states. "In addition to the lack of effort on the part of unions to be transparent about the nature of their expenditures, this Administration has significantly weakened their incentive to do so."
Workers are left with few options, according to Terry Bowman, the head of Union Conservatives, a Michigan advocacy group that championed the state’s passage of right-to-work laws. Bowman has been a member of the United Auto Workers union since taking a job with Ford more than 15 years ago.
"I had two choices: Join the union or pay an outrageous agency fee," he said. "When you’re a new worker and don’t know your rights the choice is very easy."
Phippen said the lengthy process of recovering agency fees serves as a major deterrent holding labor organizations accountable to employees.
"Employees may have ultimate recourse with the NLRB or in the courts, and they could get a lawyer to challenge the amount of agency fees, but how many workers would want to spend time and money to hire an attorney and go to court to recover that money?" he said.