The NLRB, in a significant ruling for organized labor, recently ruled that employees who are forced to pay union dues are entitled to know how their money is being spent. The NLRB ruled in January 1997 that unions must supply financial information to workers who pay dues but who have elected not to join the union. The use of union dues for political activity continues to be a controversial issue for both public and private unions. This paper will provide a brief overview of the legal history of unions in America and the current issues they are encountering. Legal issues relating to the use of union dues for political activities for both public and private unions will also be discussed.
A union is an organization that represents employees' interests to management on such issues as wages, work hours, and working conditions. Employees participate in administering the union and support its activities with union dues-fees they pay for their union's services. Legislation protects public and private employees' right to join and participate in union activities. Legislation also requires that employers bargain and confer with unions over employment issues that directly affect unionized employees' working conditions. Issues such as wages, seniority, and disciplinary procedures are examples of required bargaining items.
Employees join unions for different reasons. In the United States, employees seek representation when they (1) are dissatisfied with certain aspects of their job; (2) feel that they lack influence with management to make the needed changes; and (3) see unionization as a solution to their problems. The union's best ally is bad management. If managers listen to employees, give them some say in the policies that affect their jobs, and treat them fairly, then employees may not feel the need to organize. Managers who ignore their workers' interests and are autocratic in their management style often end up having their organization unionized.
Employers usually prefer a non-unionized work force. Unions may constrain what managers can do. As stated earlier, this particularly relates to decisions that directly affect the unionized employees' working conditions. In private industry, for instance, a company may decide to subcontract part of its operations, which is legally allowed. However, the possible effect of that decision has to be discussed with the union. For example, if senior-level employees are laid off as a result of the decision to subcontract, the contract language must be examined to see what it says about the affected employees' ability to transfer to other units within the company.
A Brief Overview of Labor Relations and the Legal Environment-Private Sector
Early in the twentieth century, as the American economy became industrialized, many employers created horrendous working conditions for employees. Many employees were recent immigrants to the United States who had few skills, limited English, and no financial resources to cushion an employment interruption. Others were rural Americans who were part of the huge population shift from rural to urban areas. They, too, had few skills and financial resources. Employers were free to exploit both sets of workers because there was always a ready supply of replacements.
However, the onset of WWI and the continued industrialization of the economy resulted in a basic shift in the power relationship between employers and employees. This shift gained greater momentum as a result of the Great Depression. Millions of workers lost their jobs, placing even more pressure on employees. They were out of work and unable to provide for their families. It was in this environment that union activity in the private sector as we know it today was legalized by the Wagner Act of 1935 (also known as the National Labor Relations Act).
The Wagner Act was designed to protect employees' rights to form and join unions and to engage in such activities as strikes, picketing, and collective bargaining. …