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The Use of Union Dues for Political Purposes: A Legal Analysis

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Under union shop agreements, labor unions must establish strict safeguards and procedures for ensuring that non-members’ dues are not used to support certain political and ideological activities which are outside the scope of normal collective bargaining activities. The “union shop” or “agency shop” agreement essentially provides that employees do not have to join the union, but must support the union in order to retain employment by paying dues to defray the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance matters.

In a line of decisions, the Supreme Court has addressed this issue and has concluded that compulsory union dues of non-members should not be used for political and ideological activities which are outside the scope of the unions’ collective bargaining and labor-management duties when non-members object to such use. Seven Supreme Court decisions have held that such union dues exacted from dissenting non-members were not to be used for political and ideological purposes and would have to be refunded in an expedited way to dissenting nonmembers in accordance with proper procedural safeguards: (1) International Association of Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740 (1961); (2) Railway Clerks v. Allen, 373 U.S. 113 (1963); (3) Abood v. District Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977); (4) Ellis v. Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, 466 U.S. 435 (1984); (5) Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, 475 U.S. 292 (1986); (6) Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988); and Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, 500 U.S. 507 (1991).

In the 105th Congress, bills have been introduced which would allow labor organizations to use these dues and fees for political purposes only when the employee affirmatively, in writing, so authorizes. Other bills provide that labor organizations disclose the amount of union dues and agency fees used for political purposes and other specified activities. Finally, there are some bills that would repeal those provisions that require an employee join a union as a condition of employment.