Unions See Minimal Impact in Court Ruling on Dues

By Thomas Toch — May 16, 1984 3 min read

Washington--A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court restricting the ways unions may use fees collected from non-union members is likely to result in a modest reduction in the income of teachers’ unions, according to officials of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

But at a press conference last week, a national anti-union organization claimed that the Court’s ruling represents a resounding defeat for the teachers’ organizations and other unions.

“As a result of the decision, there will be a lot more scrutiny of how the teacher unions spend dues money,” said Edward M. Remington, assistant education director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, an arm of the National Right to Work Committee.

“For the first time, the unions will have to open up their books and show teachers how they are spending their money.”

“The Court’s decision is going to set a precedent; it is going to spread,” said Kriss Mussey of the National Right to Work Committee. “We have 15 cases [involving the same issue] that we’ve had on hold pending the Court’s opinion on the issue; now we are going to push ahead with them.”

The Court’s Ruling

In Ellis v. Railway Clerks (Case No. 82-1150), the Court, in an 8-to-1 decision, ruled that unions cannot spend dues collected from nonmembers on union organizing or on union litigation that is not connected with the bargaining unit.

On the other hand, the court upheld the right of unions to spend such fees to cover the cost of national conventions, social activities, and, within certain limitations, union publications.

“The test,” the Court said in its ruling, “must be whether the challenged expenditures are necessarily or reasonably incurred for the purpose of performing the duties of an exclusive representative of the employees in dealing with the employer on labor-management issues.”

Some 16 states have collective-bargaining laws that require teachers and other public employees who choose not to belong to unions but who benefit from their presence to pay dues--commonly called agency fees--to them.

Reduced Income

Robert Chanin, the nea general counsel, said the Supreme Court’s ruling will reduce “somewhat” his organization’s revenue.

“But we certainly don’t live on agency-shop money,” he added. “We’ve got 1.7 million members and we collect agency fees from about 15,000 people. It isn’t going to hurt much.”

Michael Radzilowski, who does legal work for the aft as an associate of the organization’s general counsel, said the financial impact of the decision “will not be that devastating.”

“The great majority of people that we represent are members of the union,” he said.

Mr. Radzilowski termed “disappointing” and Mr. Chanin “troublesome” the Court’s restriction on the use of agency fees for organizing and some forms of litigation.

“The state and local affiliates will have most of their expenditures ruled allowable [under the Court’s criteria],” Mr. Radzilowski said. “The national organization puts a fair amount of money into organizing; but again, the amount of money we are talking about here is just not that great.” Both lawyers said they were pleased that the Court upheld the right of unions to use dues from nonmembers for such purposes.

Escrow Accounts

The Justices said in their opinion that unions should either set up interest-bearing escrow accounts for nonmembers who charge a union with misspending their dues or reduce the nonmembers’ dues. The opinion prohibits unions from giving teachers who are not members non-interest-bearing rebates at the end of a school year.

Mr. Chanin and Mr. Radzilowski said that currently when nonmember teachers challenge the use of their dues, the nea and the aft set up escrow accounts of the sort outlined by the Court.

However, Ms. Mussey challenged those statements. “We found that they don’t [set up escrow accounts] nearly to the extent they say they do, and they only do so when they are forced to by the courts,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1984 edition of Education Week as Unions See Minimal Impact in Court Ruling on Dues