JudicialAustin Worker Sues Union for Forced Collection of Fees for Political Activity

The United Airlines union collects mandatory fees from non-members for political activism without first getting their affirmative consent.
December 10, 2020
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A United Airlines union makes all employees, including non-members, pay for the union’s political activity unless they opt out. One Austin airport worker sued the union for the practice and took the case up to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday.

Texas’ right-to-work laws bar unions from squeezing fees out of non-members — in most industries, that is. A federal law, the Railway Labor Act (RLA), authorizes unions in the railroad and airline industries to strike deals with management that include mandatory union payments from all employees, members or not. Because the law is federal, it overrides Texas’ right-to-work laws. Employees of businesses that have these kinds of agreements with unions, such as United Airlines, can opt out of paying for everything but the union’s collective bargaining.

The Austin worker, a United Airlines employee named Arthur Baisley, argues that the union should get the consent of non-members before taking their money for political activity instead of automatically withdrawing the payment and asking them to opt out. Because the union can slip past Texas’ right-to-work laws thanks to a federal law, Baisley and the legal team of the National Right to Work Foundation (NRWF) argue that the union must abide by the First Amendment and seek the affirmative consent of the worker before taking his money for political activity.

“Because the RLA preempts right-to-work laws, like Texas’ right-to-work law, that’s sufficient government involvement in what the union’s doing so that the First Amendment applies. Because, you know, generally the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private employers like United Airlines,” argued Jeffrey Jennings, the NRWF staff attorney who presented oral arguments in court yesterday on behalf of Baisley.

“Like any other political organization, [the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)] just can’t go around taking money from people unless they opt out. They need somebody to consent to that. That’s really what this case is about. It’s about consent for paying for a union’s politics.”

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Baisley appealed the case up to the Fifth Circuit after losing at the lower court. A win for Baisley would not end IAM’s mandatory money collections, which are legal under the RLA. It would establish that the union can only automatically collect fees for collective bargaining costs and must seek affirmative consent before collecting more for political activity.

The union argues that the First Amendment does not apply to their agreement with United Airlines and thus their opt-out system does not violate the law. For legal support, IAM refers to a 1961 Supreme Court case: International Association of Machinists v. Street, when the court ruled that opt-out systems like the one the union uses today are legal.

“The safeguards of [the RLA] were added for the protection of dissenters’ interests, but dissent is not to be presumed — it must affirmatively be made known to the union by the dissenting employee,” IAM’s brief reads, quoting from the Machinists v. Street ruling.

Baisley’s team argues that more recent Supreme Court cases overruled this decision, namely in Janus v. AFSCME, a 2018 case in which the court ruled that the First Amendment requires a union to get employees’ affirmative consent before taking their money for political activity. In response, the union holds that the Janus ruling “did not involve any construction of the RLA” and that the interpretation from Machinists v. Street holds more relevance to Baisley’s case because it deals directly with the federal law.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.