Commentary

Forced Union Fees Do Not Have to Go to the Union – You Have Other Options

Trey Kovacs
By Trey Kovacs | August 17, 2015 | 10:32 AM EDT

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2011, file photo, Karen Wallace, right, and Meryleigh Brainerd, left, both teachers in Calaveras County, join in a candlelight vigil in front of the state Capitol to express sympathy with union members in Wisconsin in Sacramento, Calif. Powerful public-sector unions are facing another high-profile legal challenge that they say could wipe away millions from their bank accounts and make it tougher for them to survive. A group of California schoolteachers, backed by a conservative group, has asked the Supreme Court to rule that unions representing government workers can't collect fees from those who choose not to join. The case comes as officials in Wisconsin and other states dealing with budged deficits have worked to reduce bargaining rights for public employees. (AP File Photo/Robert Durell)

The Michigan Supreme Court recently ruled that state employees cannot be required to pay dues to a union or risk being fired. This is but the most recent victory for worker freedom. In the past three years, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have enacted right to work laws, which free workers from paying dues to a union they do not support, and likely never voted for.

Today, there are 25 right to work states in the nation. But even in states where workers lack right to work protections, there are options available to workers who want to lessen or completely end their financial support to an organization that does not share their values.

Unfortunately, many workers are unaware of their workplace rights. That is where National Employee Freedom Week (NEFW), a nationwide coalition comprised of nearly 100 organizations, provides needed help. From August 16 to 22 the campaign spreads the word that workers have more choice when it comes to paying union dues than their union tells them.

In forced-unionism states workers may opt out of full-fledged dues payments and become agency-fee payers, meaning they pay less in dues and their contributions may only go toward union representational activity, like collective bargaining and grievance procedures, not political activity. But according to a soon-to-be-released NEFW poll, 39.2 percent of individuals in union households are unaware of this option.

Workers can also declare themselves religious or conscientious objectors, and instead of paying dues to a union, pay the equivalent of agency-fee payer dues to a charity.

Knowing these alternatives provides workers with mechanisms that allow them some freedom in dealing with highly political and self-interested unions.

An impediment to these semi-opt-out options is the very short time window given to exercise them. For instance, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) contract only allowed workers to opt out of paying dues during the month of August. To educate workers of this impediment, the NEFW coalition member the Mackinac Center for Public Policy initiated a campaign called “August Opt-Out” to inform and assist workers on how and when to opt out. The MEA responded by publishing the names of teachers who opted out in August 2014, in an effort to intimidate them.

Yet, the MEA’s intimidation tactics didn’t keep some teachers from opting out, often because of the union’s political positions. Lisa Jelenek, a Michigan teacher at Laingsburg Public Schools, said, “Last year I wished to opt out of the union because I do not agree with many of the positions of the MEA or NEA and also I missed the August window, which I was totally unaware of due to a contract I had supposedly signed back in 2001!”

The short annual opt-out window is only one tactic unions use to discourage workers from exercising their rights. A Pennsylvania teacher is suing her union for retaliating against workers who choose to become conscientious objectors. Linda Misja a teacher at Apollo-Ridge High School, near Pittsburgh, has had to accept the unwanted representation of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) for years. Misja objects to paying dues on religious grounds. Legally, she is protected from paying dues to the PSEA and can redirect her funds to a non-profit.

Yet, the PSEA, for political reasons, did not like the charities Misja chose and a three-plus year battle ensues over where her dues will go. In a July 2015 interview, Misja said, “I was turned down because they [PSEA] said People Concerned for the Unborn Child was not in line with their policies or their beliefs. They Proposed Planned Parenthood, a group that is the reason I have my religious objection in the first place.”

NEFW is an important public service to the hardworking men and women in America. All workers should be aware of their legal protections and be able to freely exercise them. After all, knowing is half the battle.  

Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy non-profit group in Washington, D.C.

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