In the old days, union reps came by and collected dues from each member by hand. It gave them an opportunity to organize, to check in with members, see if there were any complaints or grievances or suggestions for how the union could do things better. It also gave members the chance to say “screw you” to the union when they felt it was taking them for granted, which forced the union leaders to be more accountable to the members. In fact, if the union wanted angry members’ money, an organizer or steward would have to go meet with them, listen to their grievances, and resolve them to their satisfaction before they would start paying up.
Automatic dues check off, which allows unions to collect dues as a deduction from members’ paychecks, is a much easier way to get the money quickly, and it ensures that dues are collected from everyone, even the pissed off members. This has made big unions flush with resources that have been used to pay large salaries to professional bureaucrats (i.e., union leaders) and to lavish money on politicians who they think might do their bidding. It has encouraged the bureaucracies to grow larger and less accountable to members.
The ruling elite would love the automatic dues check off to disappear, as it would make it much more difficult for unions to support candidates who are less business friendly. It was one of the goals of Gov. Walker’s union-busting legislation in Wisconsin. Indeed, it was the preservation of the automatic dues check off that most concerned the leaders of the unions, who ended up giving away significant pay and benefits concessions, without their members’ approval, in hopes of saving it.
Maybe it’s time to let it go.
Labor Notes recently had an interesting article on workers at Kennametal Corp. in western Massachusetts who were forced by anti-union attacks by their bosses to return to the old school method of collecting dues by hand. While union officials were scared that they might lose dues, screw up paper work, or have members revolt and refuse to pay, they found that the process worked pretty well. Out of 75 members, only two refused to pay.
By collecting dues in person, stewards’ and organizers were forced to spend more time with members, which ended up helping them convince members to wear T-shirts, attend after-work gate meetings, sign petitions, picket before work, and prepare grievances. One challenge was the new hires, many of whom didn’t want to pay. This forced organizers to meet regularly with the newbies, listen to their grievances, and work to satisfy them, something that often never happens in unions nowadays. One of the biggest complaints I hear when I am organizing younger teachers, especially temporary and probationary teachers, is that they feel abandoned by the union (particularly during March, when they are being sent pink slips).