Educating workers about their right to opt out of union membership

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
August 15, 2016

Educating workers about their right to opt out of union membership

National Employee Freedom Week spotlights the ability of all Illinois workers – including state employees – to opt out of unions, and outlines the reforms needed to ensure true worker freedom.

More than 30 percent of Illinois union households stated they were not aware they could opt out of union membership without losing their jobs, according to a poll the National Employee Freedom Week campaign conducted

For members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME – the state’s largest government-worker union – information about the freedom to opt out of union membership could not come at a better time.

AFSCME is indicating it may go on strike as soon as Sept. 1. That strike would affect 35,000 state workers across Illinois.

And rumors are spreading that AFSCME may fine members as much as $5,000 if they cross the picket line. While AFSCME has denied these rumors, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations has indicated that unions commonly include the ability to penalize employees in their bylaws.

Regardless of AFSCME’s true intent, the alleged threats demonstrate the need for workers to fully understand the options available to them – including opting out of the union.

Each year, National Employee Freedom Week focuses on just that: making sure workers in unionized states know they cannot be forced to maintain union membership in order to keep their jobs. This year’s national campaign runs from August 14-20, and it includes information on options specific to Illinois workers.

State employees need to understand what rights they have now, as well as what rights they could have if commonsense labor reform is pursued in Illinois. State workers currently have the option of becoming fair share payers. For AFSCME members, the process is fairly simple, and the state has links on its website aiding workers who want to become fair share payers.

But workers could enjoy even more freedom – and the state could experience economic growth – if reforms such as Right to Work and Worker’s Choice are pursued. Unfortunately, misconceptions about these labor reforms abound.

Fair share payers can opt out of union membership, but they still pay fees to the union

In its 1977 decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees could be forced to pay for union representation, regardless of whether the worker wants to be represented by the union. But the court also ruled that employees could not be forced to pay for union political activities, such as making contributions to political candidates.

Since the Abood decision, government employees have been able to opt out of full union membership, yet they still pay what is deemed to be their “fair share” toward the cost of union representation in negotiations with the employer.

This means that rather than paying membership dues to AFSCME, a fair share payer pays a fee supposed to represent his “fair share” of what it costs AFSCME to represent him in negotiations and other matters related to conditions of employment. Under both the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act and the AFSCME contract with the state, the fee paid by a fair share payer will not exceed the amount of dues required of members.

By becoming a fair share payer, an employee does not lose any state-provided benefits. In fact, because unions like AFSCME have lobbied for and want a monopoly to represent all workers, fair share payers are still represented by unions and therefore are entitled to all rights secured in union-negotiated contracts.

Illinois state workers who have chosen to be fair share payers have nothing to fear from alleged threats that AFSCME will fine members who cross the picket line. As nonmembers, they are not subject to any disciplinary actions by the union.

According to the expired AFSCME collective bargaining agreement, all employees who wish to opt out of union membership can do so by canceling their dues deduction. The process is handled by the Comptroller’s office. The state’s website assists any interested employees with the process:

  • First, an employee can download a form letter informing AFSCME leadership he wishes to resign from the union and become a fair share payer effective immediately. The employee would send that letter to the union. (The state has also included a letter for employees who wish to change their status from “fair share payer” to “union member.”)
  • Next, the employee would alert his agency to his change in union status. The state has also included a link that allows the employee to do so.

Opting out of AFSCME will help state employees avoid potential union fines in the near future. But the fact remains that fair share payers in Illinois are forced to pay fees to a union they may not even support. They are forced to be represented by a union, whether they want that representation or not. They are forced to accept whatever contract the union negotiates. And if the worker has any kind of problem at work, he must utilize the union’s grievance process in order to address it with the employer.

Illinois workers deserve freedom to decide with what groups they want to associate. They should have the right to make decisions for themselves and their families, including whether to pay fees to a union. They should not be forced to surrender their First Amendment freedoms – freedom of association and freedom of speech – just to keep a state job.

To that end, there is more Illinois could do – such as Right-to-Work and Worker’s-Choice laws – to better ensure true worker freedom.

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