All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1998

The Freedom Not to Pay for Other People’s Politics

The Failure to Enforce Beck Rights Mocks Justice and Offends Individual Liberty

Samuel Gompers, the founder of the modern American labor union movement, once wrote, “there may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. . . . It is his legal right and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right.”

Today, union leaders rarely tell the rank and file about Gompers’s defense of individual rights. Armed with tens of millions of dollars in forced dues from compulsory union membership, today’s unions engage in political activity, social causes, and ideological crusades to which many of the members personally object. That may change, if a 1988 Supreme Court decision is ever enforced.

In 21 “right to work” states, workers are protected from union compulsion by laws that make union membership voluntary. But in the other 29 states, a simple majority vote at a work site is sufficient to dragoon all workers into a union. With this “exclusive right of representation,” unions then negotiate security clauses in contracts with employers that give them the power to coerce their “members” to pay dues.

Employers routinely approve these clauses, even though no law mandates them, in exchange for concessions at the bargaining table. A security clause obligates an employer to fire a worker who fails to pay these fees at the union’s request. Since this guarantees that the union will get whatever it demands from workers, it is usually in the union’s best interest to sacrifice other proposals at the bargaining table to secure this lucrative and self-perpetuating device.

Workers covered by a security clause must pay dues for the union’s collective-bargaining activities, but they are not required to financially support the union’s political or ideological causes. In fact, workers are actually entitled to a refund of their dues used for purposes unrelated to collective bargaining, contract administration, or grievance processing, according to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Communication Workers of America v. Beck.

In that celebrated case, it was determined that the union had been using as much as 79 percent of Harry Beck’s dues for partisan politics—and almost all of it on behalf of one particular political party. In a more recent case from Ferris State University in Michigan, a teachers union was found to have been spending over 90 percent of its members’ dues money on political and other non-bargaining activities.

Ten years after the landmark decision, Beck rights go largely unrealized because workers simply do not know these rights exist and state and federal governments have done almost nothing to enforce them. In April 1996 Luntz Research revealed that 78 percent of 1,000 union members surveyed were unaware that they had a right to a refund of the portion of their dues that went to political activities. Moreover, a whopping 84 percent in the survey said that their union leaders should be required to disclose “exactly how they spend” union dues.

Peer pressure and veiled threats from the top discourage the informed few from even attempting to exercise their Beck rights. When union members have actually challenged their union leadership to honor the decision—and there have been a courageous few—they get the cold shoulder or worse. Union leaders behave like the monopolists they are—stonewalling, falsifying the numbers, and forcing disgruntled workers to spend large sums of money to litigate the issue. To most workers, that expense is hardly worth the eventual refund.

In a free society, membership in any organization would be a matter of choice and the issue of spending dues money against the wishes of dues payers would be a rare tempest in a very tiny teapot. Compelling someone to join and pay dues to support collective bargaining does obvious violence to that principle, but the Supreme Court’s Beck ruling was intended to prevent something even worse—forcing a worker to pay for other people’s political agendas.

In April 1992, President George Bush issued an executive order requiring all firms doing business with the federal government to inform their workers of their Beck rights. Shortly after assuming office in 1993, President Bill Clinton rescinded that order. It remains a travesty of justice in America that in spite of a ruling from the highest court in the land, our so-called public servants with few exceptions cannot bring themselves to enforce every worker’s right to abstain from supporting causes and candidates he opposes.

The state of Washington is virtually alone in attempting to enforce Beck rights. In 1992, 72 percent of that state’s voters approved a ballot initiative requiring teachers unions to secure written permission from each worker before deducting political-action assessments from his paycheck. For state-government workers, the voters approved even stricter language: state-employee unions could not deduct for political contributions under any circumstances; an employee’s personal check was required.

What happened after these changes was nothing short of astonishing. The number of teachers contributing to their unions’ political-action committees plummeted from over 45,000 to just 8,000. And the number of state workers making such a contribution—over 40,000 before the change—evaporated to a microscopic 82. No wonder unions everywhere are scared stiff that Beck rights might become a cause célèbre.

California voters will go to the polls later this year to decide on a Beck-inspired referendum. If it passes, unions in that state could no longer collect or use money from employees for political purposes without express permission. Millions of dollars will be spent by both sides over the exercise of a right that ought to be a given in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The failure to enforce that right mocks justice and offends a most fundamental principle of individual liberty. Freedom lovers everywhere should yearn for the day when American workers are no longer compelled to cough up cash for the pet political projects of union leaders.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is