Cover Story

Dues & don'ts

"Dues & don'ts" Continued...

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

The U.S. Supreme Court case Chicago Teachers Union vs. Hudson (1986) established that the logic of an employee's religious beliefs, if sincerely held, is not at issue in determining disposition of his money. The watershed 1988 case, Communication Workers of America vs. Beck, then broadened the scope of conscientious objection, establishing the right of any worker--religious or not--to refuse to finance union politics with which he disagrees. In Beck, the Supreme Court ruled that objecting workers are entitled to a refund of that portion of dues not used by the union for collective bargaining and related activities.

But, as Mr. Robey found out, such rights do not prevent unions from denying religious accommodation requests, challenging workers' religious beliefs in court, or, at minimum, dragging their feet for years. From 1995 through 2000, he requested each January that his agency fees be diverted to charity. (Workers may also request nonmonetary accommodations such as time off for Sabbath or other religious observances.)

The first year, the union quickly granted Mr. Robey's accommodation request--but kept his money, deducted automatically from his paycheck at the beginning of each school year, in an interest-bearing escrow account. At the end of the school year, the union forwarded the money to a charity--mutually agreed upon by Mr. Robey and the union--but kept the interest. During 1996-97 and 1997-98, the union took at least eight months to send Mr. Robey's money (without the interest) to the charity.

In the 1998-99 school year, the union came up with a new requirement: a lengthy questionnaire that asked for data on church affiliation, documents that validated Mr. Robey's religious objections to union policies, and the signature of a pastor or "other religious official." The union that time took 13 months to grant Mr. Robey's request, and 14 months to send his money (but not the interest) to the charity.

By that time Mr. Robey, assisted by the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTW) in Washington, D.C., had filed the first of two complaints with the EEOC. Even while his complaints were pending, he continued to have to justify his religious beliefs to the union via the laborious questionnaire. Meanwhile, the union continued taking his money. Finally, in the EEOC-brokered conciliation agreement last month, the NEA and its Ohio affiliates agreed to cease paper-grilling of religious objectors.

Mackinac Public Policy Center's Robert Hunter, a former National Labor Relations Board member, calls the right of workers to withhold their money from union politics "one of the best kept secrets in modern day labor relations." But if other teachers fight as Mr. Robey did, and as Ohio-type agreements arise in other states, what's now a secret will be shouted from rooftops--and Big Labor could be left staring at a multimillion-dollar annual hole in its political war chest.

Charles Baird, an economist at California State University Hayward (CSU), has just finished, at least for now, a long battle. Scores of CSU faculty--including Jews, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and people of other religions--requested accommodations after the California government, controlled by Democrats, made agency fees mandatory in 2000. But the California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents CSU professors, granted accommodations only to Seventh Day Adventists, since it's a settled matter of case law that the Seventh Day Adventist Church objects officially to unionism among its members. CFA routinely denied accommodations to people like Mr. Baird who professed individual beliefs.

In 1999, Mr. Baird proclaimed his opposition to CFA's abortion cheerleading and requested that his agency fees be diverted to charity. CFA responded with a form letter that turned him down flat. Mr. Baird, a specialist in labor law and relations, fought back. In February 2000, he and two other CSU professors filed suit in federal district court in San Francisco. Represented by NRTW, they argued, among other things, that California's mandatory agency shop law was a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law, since no other state laws created union security for California public education employees.

That argument "caught the immediate attention of the unions and the politicians in their thrall," Mr. Baird says. Within 30 days, the Democrat-controlled California legislature passed SB1960, a bill extending mandatory agency shop requirements to all Golden State public education employees, not just CSU faculty. Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat who received massive cash infusions from organized labor during his 1998 gubernatorial run, signed SB1960 into law in September 2000.

That rendered Mr. Baird's 14th Amendment argument moot, since SB1960 ensured that all public education employees enjoyed the same "protection" under the law. Two months later, Judge William Shubb sided with CFA on all issues, including that of religious accommodation. In the judge's view, CFA had acted appropriately in denying plaintiffs' accommodation requests because it had determined that their beliefs were not "sincerely held."

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