Published in the August 27, 2015 Santa Maria Times.
In a recent commentary, I noted that a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, posed a significant threat to public employee unions both locally and nationwide.
If the court decides in favor of the plaintiffs, what is known as the agency or service fee paid by non-union members could disappear, delivering a crippling blow to the ability of public-sector unions to represent teachers, nurses, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, and others in their bargaining units. The case is expected to be heard in October.
The major complaints people opposed to unions make is they do not wish to be forced to join an organization they have no wish to be part of, and furthermore, they do not want their dues money used to support political causes or candidates they do not agree with.
This brings to mind a popular misconception. People who are represented by a public employee union, such as the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, do not have to join the union. They can pursue their employment as a non-member and still enjoy the advantages the collective-bargaining agreement offers, such as the increases in pay, faster advancement on the salary schedule, and the job security the union has negotiated on their behalf over the years. The service fee, which is the same amount as that taken in dues from members, is a way of them paying their fair share for the efforts the union has made to improve their pay and working conditions.
It should be noted the union, by law, has to represent everyone in its bargaining unit, even those who chose not to join. When the union negotiates a pay increase, that increase applies to members and non-members. When the union bargains an improvement in job security, that improvement reaches everyone, whether they belong to the union or not.
But what about that part of the service fee that is used to support a candidate or a cause a person does not agree with? Unions are held to a fairness standard that does not apply to say, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Via a 1986 Supreme Court ruling, Teachers vs. Hudson, an agency fee payer can elect to have that portion of the service fee that is used for political purposes rebated to them every month. This law requires that every year each non-member of a bargaining unit receive a letter informing them of this right, and of the percentage they are eligible to have rebated to them. Due to changing circumstances, the amount varies year by year.
At the Part-Time Faculty Association much time is given to making sure the Hudson notice information is as correct and accurate as it can be, and that each non-member understands his/her rights to opt out of what are known legally as “non-chargeables” of their service fee. The letter is two pages long and goes into great detail. We want the service payers to be fully cognizant of this process.
By contrast, organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offer no such alternatives to their members. As a general rule, decisions as to what candidates these groups will support financially are made in secret, with little or no accountability.
The service or agency fee is not an undue burden placed on employees in the public sector by their unions, but rather an attempt at fairness and a way of continuing unions’ struggle to improve the lives of the people they represent.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA