Court overturns ruling on nonunion workers’ obligations

The Associated Press
Friday May 18, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Nonunion workers should not be required to pay union organizing fees, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, overturning an earlier decision by the National Labor Relations Board. 

“We hold that organizational activity is not necessary for the union’s performance of its duties as the exclusive representative of the employees,” the unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. “To require nonmember employees to fund such activity is not authorized.” 

Thousands of labor contracts require workers who choose not to join the union representing them to pay fees similar to what union members pay in dues. 

However, in a 1988 ruling the U.S. Supreme Court said that unions may not use money from nonunion workers for any purpose other than collective bargaining. 

In that case, 20 employees of AT&T in Maryland sued the Communications Workers of America, contending they should have the right to withhold a portion of their nonmember fees to avoid subsidizing union political goals they didn’t agree with. 

In the latest case, three supermarket and meat processing workers in Michigan, Colorado and California who quit the food workers union in 1989 complained they continued to be charged nonmember fees that helped pay for union organizing activities. 

Becky McReynolds, one of the suit’s original plaintiffs, worked as a cashier at a Colorado grocery store in 1989 and paid about $40 a month in union fees. 

“I felt that the union wasn’t doing a lot for our store,” she said Thursday from her home in Glenwood Springs, Colo. “I didn’t feel that we should have to belong to the union if we didn’t want to, and we shouldn’t have to pay these dues.” 

The NLRB, which acts as an out-of-court referee of labor-management disputes, ruled in October 1999 they should have to pay, saying that recruiting new members indirectly bolsters a union’s bargaining clout to the benefit of members, as well as nonmembers. 

But the appeals court took a dim view of that argument. 

“The Board does not have a free hand to interpret a statute when the Supreme Court has already interpreted the statute, ” the court said. 

David Rosenfeld, who represented United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1036 in Camarillo, said everyone benefits from organizing efforts because when unions have more members, everyone’s wages stay higher. 

“It’s an unfortunate decision,” he said. “But it won’t have a great impact. There’s so few people who take this position because they recognize the value the union serves to them.” 

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which opposes compulsory dues, praised the court’s decision — saying it would impact 7.8 million workers across the country who are forced to pay union fees as a condition of their employment. 

“The notoriously biased NLRB has again been caught red-handed fabricating its own vision for labor relations favoring union officials, even when it violates clear Supreme Court precedent,” said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the foundation. 

The NLRB did not immediately return a call seeking comment.