Labor unions are aggressively filing lawsuits against right-to-work laws across the nation. Currently, in Idaho, Indiana, Wisconsin and West Virginia, organized labor is challenging workers’ right to choose whether or not to pay union dues as a condition of employment without risk of penalty.
With the untimely death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, some fear right-to-work laws now in effect in 26 states are just one Democratic appointee away from extinction. Right-to-work laws free workers from forced union dues, so losing those rights would be a devastating blow to worker freedom. But workers in the other 24 states still have options. Perhaps now more than ever, it’s important to educate workers about their rights in states without right-to-work laws on the books.
Just such an effort was launched four years ago with the annual National Employee Freedom Week (NEFW), which this year starts Aug. 14. It’s a coalition started to educate workers on their rights in relation to union membership. NEFW publicizes the alternatives that are available to workers in the minority of states without right to work. This year, the coalition has grown to 102 groups across 42 states, up from 70 groups just two years ago.
One right workers have is opting out of union membership and becoming an “agency fee payer,” a designation that prohibits unions from charging the full amount of dues and restricts agency fees from funding unions’ political activity. Another possibility is to become a conscientious objector, which means a worker can object to union membership because of religious beliefs and, in turn, their dues are donated to a charity agreed upon by the two parties.
These alternatives allow for more autonomy in how their money is spent, whether that means a partial discount or avoiding dues going to political causes workers disagree with. Unions contribute vast sums of money to left-wing organizations. Research from Center for Union Facts shows that unions contributed about $7 million from 2012 to 2014 to environmental groups and nearly $420 million to a variety of left-wing special interest groups. Richard Berman of the Center for Union Facts explains, “While more than 90 percent of union dollars support Democrats and left-wing causes, roughly 40 percent of union households vote Republican.”
Disagreement with how the money is spent is not the only reason to seek out alternatives to union membership. The dues themselves are often more than $1,000, which as the NEFW website points out, can vastly adjust a person’s current spending ability and allow more flexibility and financial security moving forward.
Consider, too, that those hefty fees may not just financially support politics workers disagree with, but also go toward exorbitant salaries for union bosses. Watchdog.org reports that “448 union officers and employees were paid $250,000 or more last year and 18 were paid more than $500,000.” These 2015 salaries include the General President Terence O’Sullivan of the Laborers Union, who gets paid north of $600,000, and an attorney for the Independent Pilots Association, who is paid almost $1.2 million.
Another reason why workers need to know how to become an agency fee payer or conscientious objector is because many union contracts only allow a limited time for workers to exercise their right to opt out of union membership. In Nevada, like many other states, teachers only have an annual two-week period, July 1 through 15, to decide whether they want to continue their membership for the following year and pay full-fledged dues.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute uncovers one prominent reason for the lack of knowledge of the opt-out possibility: It is buried in an over 60-page collective bargaining agreement.
In no other industry would a membership contract be so restrictive. Not for cablevision, not for a cellular phone, not for a magazine subscription — yet there are often widespread complaints associated with trying to exit those contracts. But union contracts typically only give workers a 15-day window to opt out, a condition the American public would not allow in any other industry.
In conjunction with the mission of National Employee Freedom Week, we must continue to educate workers of their freedom and ability to opt out of union membership, especially with right-to-work laws potentially at risk.
• Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst specializing in labor policy with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where Tyler Kovacs is a research associate.
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