Cover Story

Dues & don'ts

The law supports workers whose faith conflicts with paying union dues. Most workers don't know that, and most unions don't want them to know

Issue: "Unions: Dues and don'ts," Nov. 30, 2002

KATHLEEN KLAMUT DOESN'T want her money used to keep abortionists in business. A psychologist with the Ravenna City School District in Ohio, she has fought state and local teachers unions in a dispute over dues deducted from her paycheck that go to elect pro-abortion candidates. But when she requested to have all of her dues diverted to charity, as is her right under law, the union said no--even though Mrs. Klamut had won a similar, two-year battle in the Louisville, Ohio, district in 1999. In March 2002, Mrs. Klamut filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Robert Beers also wants control over his money. In 2000, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) threatened to have him fired from his job as an electrical technician at Lockheed Martin in Orlando. That's because Mr. Beers, a 46-year-old Southern Baptist, didn't want his dues to finance IAM's political support of abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. In 2000, after enduring a series of intimidating letters and intrusive questionnaires about his faith, he filed a complaint with the EEOC, and followed that this year with a federal lawsuit against the IAM.

Ohio teacher Dennis Robey is about to get control over his money. Last month he reached an agreement requiring the National Education Association (NEA) and its Ohio affiliates to halt religious discrimination and harassment in that state. But how that agreement came about, and its implications, needs some explanation.

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First, here's the perspective of labor union leaders. They note that big chunks of the required dues pay the salaries of staffers who negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers, mediate disputes between companies and union workers, and press for employee benefits like health insurance and vacations to be administered properly. They say that pressure to pay dues is important, because "selfish" workers might concoct some bogus philosophical difference to avoid paying.

That's why, in states without laws prohibiting them, "agency shop" rules are common in collective bargaining agreements: To get and keep a job, workers must either join the recognized employee union, or pay compulsory amounts called "fair-share" or "agency fees." The fees protect unions from "free riders"-employees who benefit from union services without paying for them. Agency fee-payers are not union members but pay unions an amount equivalent to dues, less a small refund said to equal the amount used for union politics.

As unions have made good on their initial objectives-shorter work days, safe working conditions, and so on-many have moved on to funding liberal causes such as abortion-on-demand and school-based sexual-health clinics, opposing conservative causes such as school choice and welfare reform, and strongly supporting liberal candidates. Federal Election Commission records show that union political action committees over the past decade gave more than $362 million to Democrats and only $25 million to Republicans. Union leaders say they're representing their members, but about one-third of union members voted Republican in this month's elections.

Now, here's the perspective of Dennis Robey, who works in an "agency shop" state. In his 25th year as an industrial arts teacher in the Huber Heights City School District near Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Robey was an active member of Huber Heights Education Association, the Ohio Education Association, and the NEA until 1995. But that was the year he found in his school mailbox an NEA publication called Deceptions by the Radical Right Against the National Education Association.

"As I read the publication, I decided that I needed to look further into what the union stood for," Mr. Robey told the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce Subcommittee in June 2002. He did look into it--and found himself in direct religious opposition to official NEA resolutions on "reproductive freedom," confidential school-based family planning, and restrictions on parental choices in education. Mr. Robey, a Church of God member in Springfield, Ohio, learned from the Focus on the Family magazine Teachers in Focus that he could request from the union a "religious accommodation"--which can include an exemption from union membership, and from paying to the union some or all required fees.

Workers are entitled to such accommodations under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act prohibits employers and labor unions from discriminating against workers or adversely affecting their employment based on religion. Following passage of the act, the EEOC ruled that companies and unions must make "reasonable" religious accommodations that do not result in "undue hardship" on the business. Failure to do so is religious discrimination. Congress put an even finer point on the matter with the 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act. That law defines "religion" as including "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief."

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