Regardless of their history and the benefits they have provided for workers throughout previous centuries, unions remain a controversial employment-related subject. Proponents of unions claim that a union’s collective bargaining power helps raise worker wages and affords workers protections against abusive or unfair treatment by employers. Opponents claim that the benefits requested by many unions drive up the cost of goods and make it costlier for the employer to use American workers, thereby creating an incentive for the employer to relocate his or her operations to another country. However, can a person be forced to join a union or pay union dues if he or she does not want to?
No Obligation to Join a Union
For those who are personally opposed to a union on political or ideological grounds, there is good news: federal law does not permit your employer to force you to join a union or remain a member of a union against your will as a condition of your employment. If you do join a union but decide that you wish to withdraw your membership, you must be permitted to do so and may not be forced to remain a member. These protections are guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA).
An Obligation to Pay Certain Costs
However, a recent United States Supreme Court case (as well as other, older decisions from the Court) means that non-union employees may be required to pay for certain union activities. The background of the most recent case was as follows; the plaintiff-teachers did not want to be members of a California teacher’s union because the teachers objected to the union’s political stances and views. When the teachers were told they would need to pay approximately $600 to $700 in fees anyway because of the collective-bargaining activities of the union from which the teachers benefited, a lawsuit was filed. The teachers argued that any activity – even collective bargaining – of the union is inherently political in nature. By being required to pay any fees at all, the teachers were being forced to support a message with which they did not agree, in violation of their First Amendment rights. For more information see the article on the National Right to Work website concerning union membership and dues.
The Supreme Court tied in its vote, meaning that the Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the requirement that the teachers pay the “agency fees” of the union stands. (Agency fees refer to the actual costs the union incurs in carrying out its collective bargaining activities on behalf of its members.) Four of the justices that supported the teacher’s union’s position found that even non-union employees benefit from the collective bargaining activities of the union. If the union is able to obtain a $5,000 pay raise for teachers, this pay raise will benefit teachers that are members of the union as well as those who are not. It would not be fair to allow non-union employees to receive the benefits of agreements reached through collective bargaining activities but not require these non-union employees to bear their fair share of the costs of the union’s activities. (Not only this, but it would be unduly cumbersome for employers to keep track of the employees who are union members and those who are not so as to provide the union members with one set of benefits and protections, arrived at through collective bargaining, while providing a different set of benefits and protections to non-union employees.
So while employees cannot be forced to join a union or make contributions to a union’s political activities against their will, employees who choose not to join a local union may still be required to pay fees to cover the collective bargaining activities of the union.