Communications Workers v. Beck

487 U. S. 735

June 29, 1988

A union forced non-member employees to pay dues. Under the law, the union had this right, but the non-members objected to the fact that some of the dues went not toward collective bargaining activity, but to political causes and activism. They contended that this usage of union dues violated, among other things, section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). As non-members, they argued that they should only have to pay the money necessary for core activities like being represented in collective bargaining.

The Supreme Court agreed 5-3 (Kennedy did not participate). Brennan began by unanimously brushing aside the usual whining about justiciability, and turned to the merits. The case, he contended, was squarely controlled by a precedent from 1961, which held that a nearly identical provision in the Railway Labor Act (RLA) meant that unions could not force non-members to pay for more than the cost of core union activities. Indeed, the language was nearly identical precisely because Congress wanted the RLA and the NLRA to operate under the same rule. The goal, in both cases, was to address the ‘free rider’ problem of non-members paying nothing, but reaping the benefits of the union’s bargaining with the employer. Brennan was unimpressed by various contrary arguments based on legislative history.

Blackmun, joined by O’Connor and Scalia, dissented. He noted that the actual text of 8(a)(3) really didn’t support the majority’s interpretation. Instead, it meant that non-members could be required to pay the full amount of union dues, including any amount used for political activities. Blackmun stressed that, despite the superficial similarity of the sections in the RLA and the NLRA, the motivations behind their enactment were slightly different, and that the interpretation of one should not necessarily control the interpretation of the other.

This has one of the weirdest voting lineups ever. True, there are rare occasions where Brennan and Marshall vote against unions, but never when O’Connor and Scalia are voting for them! I don’t quite understand Brennan’s motivations here, but I’m certainly pleased with the result. While the dissent may have a stronger legal argument, the majority opinion was at least good public policy.

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