Put Individual Rights Above Those of Powerful Unions

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case next June, Rebecca Friedrichs may be the most well-known public school teacher in America—and the most controversial. She is asking the Court to uphold the Constitutional First Amendment free speech and free association rights of all California public school teachers, and by extension all public sector workers across America, against the demands of unions that now require even non-members to pay “agency fees” or “fair share dues.”

The Friedrichs case is just the latest to come before the Supreme Court pitting individual workers against the powerful unions that seek to take their money without their consent. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), public sector unions were allowed to impose fees on all workers for collective bargaining purposes. Then, in Communication Workers of America v. Beck (1988), the Court found that unions could not compel fees for political purposes that workers opposed. Finally, just last year in Harris v. Quinn, the Court went further and ruled that at least some workers could opt out of both the political and bargaining portions of public sector union dues. This set the stage for freeing all public sector workers from any forced union dues, which is what the Friedrichs decision hopefully will accomplish.

In Oregon, there also may be a citizen’s initiative on the ballot next November granting freedom from all union dues for public employees. Public employees are the focus of this initiative, and the Friedrichs case, because it has become clear that all public sector union activities are political, including the inherently political act of collective bargaining with public bodies. Union arguments that they should collect fees from all workers because they represent them all increasingly ring hollow because unions lobby to represent everyone. They could just as well lobby to only represent those who voluntarily agree to pay them.

Several scientific surveys have been conducted to see how the public and members of union households feel about these issues. The 2013 survey found that more than 30 percent of Oregon union households would opt out of union membership if they could do so without penalty. Last year, more than 80 percent of all Oregonians surveyed agreed that employees should be able choose whether or not to join a union or pay union dues. This year’s survey again asked members of union households the following question:

“Are you aware that you can opt-out of union membership and of paying a portion of your union dues without losing your job or any other penalty?”

Surprisingly, over 27 percent of Oregon union household members surveyed answered No. This implies that over 65,000 of Oregon’s some 243,000 union members don’t realize that membership and some dues are optional. This is even more surprising given that their so-called “Beck rights” granted by the Supreme Court in 1988 are named after Harry Beck who is now retired in Oregon and still advocating for worker freedom.

These surveys were conducted for National Employee Freedom Week, which this year runs from August 16th through the 22nd.

Rebecca Friedrichs is taking her case to the Supreme Court because, in her own words, “It’s time to set aside this union name calling and all this fear mongering and let’s put America and her children first, and let’s put the rights of individuals above the rights of these powerful unions.”

“Put[ting] the rights of individuals above the rights of these powerful unions” is something every Oregonian should support.

This Labor Day, Celebrate the Rights of All Workers

By Paul R. Farago and Angela Eckhardt

This is a slightly updated version of a Commentary the authors originally published in August 2000.

In 1887 Oregon was the first to make Labor Day an official state holiday. Labor Day was intended to be a celebration of American workers’ achievements and a rallying call for workers’ rights. Today, as we reaffirm our support of workers’ rights, we should rethink what exactly that means.

Unionism was initially designed to be a means for the individual worker to use toward the creation of a better work environment. But now the union leaders and the individual worker have switched places in priority. The political power of labor unions has increased, but not to the benefit of individual workers.

One Oregonian, Harry Beck, knows this firsthand. In the mid-1960s Beck began to question his union, the Communication Workers of America (CWA). What started as a struggle for more local union autonomy developed into a fight over misuse of forced union dues. Beck ultimately prevailed in the 1988 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, CWA v. Beck.

Beck describes himself in his youth as “an avid union man.” Returning from duty in the Air Force to his career in telecommunications, Beck “traded [his] M-1 carbine for a picket sign and parades for picket lines.”

Soon, however, Beck confronted the dark underbelly of union politics. With CWA control centered in several major cities, suburban workers like Beck, who lived outside Washington, D.C. at the time, lacked a voice. He and his colleagues tried to get someone elected to their union’s Executive Committee, but as he reports, “the election process was rigged.” Next, they tried to form their own Local, and were denied. Finally, Beck withdrew his union membership.

Although he was no longer a union member and had no voting power, Beck was still required to pay the equivalent of dues in the form of an Agency Fee. He began to notice where his “stolen money” was going―particularly in terms of political spending. “The union’s publications were demanding their union people vote for Hubert Humphrey,” Beck explains. “That was the straw that broke my back.”

In 1976, 20 employees who chose not to be union members challenged CWA’s use of their agency fees for purposes other than collective bargaining, contract administration, or grievance adjustment. The National Right to Work Foundation represented the workers.

The District Court ultimately ruled, and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred, that only 21% of CWA’s spending was on collective bargaining matters. Fully 79% was misspent on union politics. The courts further ruled that workers cannot be forced to support political speech through union dues.

Not surprisingly, the Beck decision has been ignored by labor unions. Today, most workers do not know of their “Beck Rights,” or have difficulty exercising them. Unions continue to rake in billions of dollars in coerced payments each year, and dedicate vast sums to political candidates and causes without first receiving individual workers’ authorization.

We should be grateful for people like Harry Beck who struggled for the rights of individual union workers. There are now 24 “Right to Work” states that have gone a step beyond Beck Rights. In these states workers who choose not to be union members are also freed from the obligation of paying for collective bargaining representation they don’t want. Oregon is not yet such a state, but Oregon voters may have the chance to vote on the Public Employee Choice Act (Initiative Petition 9) in November 2014. The initiative would allow anyone to become or remain a public employee without being required to join a labor union or pay dues or “fair share” fees.

This Labor Day, let’s celebrate all who have made this country a free and prosperous nation, be they wage earners or entrepreneurs. Let’s respect one another enough to give more Americans the opportunity to make our own decisions about representation and political spending. In the spirit of Harry Beck, let’s uphold the rights of the individual worker.

Paul R. Farago is a former board member and Angela Eckhardt is a former program director at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based think tank.