A Happy Labor Day for Workers


American workers have reason to celebrate this Labor Day. One month ago, Gary A. Bloom and other Americans who labor under union contracts but resent paying for their unions' political agenda received justice from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers seven Midwestern states.

Bloom's saga started in the summer of 1991 when he was hired to perform clerical tasks for Group Health Inc. Bloom's job was covered by a contract administered by the Office of Professional Employees International Union, Local 12. That contract, like 70 percent of union contracts, contained a 'security clause,' which stated that all employees must join and remain union members in good standing.

But such demands are illegal. More than a decade ago Harry Beck, an AT&T employee, challenged compulsory union membership, claiming it unjust that free people in a free country should be compelled to pay for political and social agendas that affront their deepest beliefs. The Supreme Court agreed with Beck in 1988, ruling in The Communications Workers of America vs. Beck that employees not wishing to join a union need only pay dues and fees directly associated with the negotiation and administration of the labor contract.

For his part, Bloom neglected to join the union representing his shop. His employer soon began to withhold full dues anyway and a union representative sent Bloom a letter telling him to join. Bloom replied that he hadn't yet decided if he wanted to join. He also informed the union that he had not given it the right to deduct money from his paycheck. But since it had, he wanted a full accounting of how his money was spent and a refund of the portion not spent directly on his behalf.

A union representative wrote back to Bloom: 'If you chose not to be a member of Local 12, I shall have no alternative but to request to Group Health that your employment be terminated.' In other words, pay up, or find another job.

Such thuggery _ properly known as extortion _ is illegal. So in December of 1991, Bloom filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, ostensibly created in 1935 to serve workers' interests.

But the NLRB, as Bloom discovered, has evolved into something different, a bureaucracy that legitimizes the exploitation of workers by union bosses. In September 1993, it entered into an agreement with Local 12 which stipulated only that the union post temporary signs informing its members that, in fact, they need not be members. The security clause, which union representatives use illegally to coerce people to join, remained in the contract.

Bloom appealed to the 8th Circuit, where a panel of three judges called the settlement agreement 'inadequate' and 'misleading,' ordered the security clause deleted from the contract, and remanded the case back to the NLRB.

Arrogant in its power, the NLRB again snubbed the court and entered into a new agreement with the union that failed to delete the security clause.

Bloom appealed the NLRB action and, with the facts before it, the court ruled in unmistakable terms: 'A fundamental tenet underlying all of labor relations jurisprudence is voluntary unionism, the notion that a person's job, or the terms of his employment, may never be conditioned upon membership in a labor union.'

Laying long-practiced union and NLRB duplicity bare, the court continued: 'This has been settled law for some time, and the only realistic explanation for the retention of the statutory language in collective bargaining agreements … is to mislead employees about their right not to join the union.'

The court called the NLRB-approved language 'repugnant,' writing that it 'turns truth upon its head.' The court overturned the agreement and issued specific instructions, ordering that the security clause be 'deleted in its entirety' and replaced in part with the following language.

*No employee shall be required to become or remain a member of the union as a condition of employment.

*Each employee shall have the right to freely join or decline to join the union.

*Each union member shall have the right to freely retain or discontinue his membership.

In a final slap to the NLRB—and the unions—the court extended the ruling to the entire 8th Circuit, making it clear it wouldn't honor any contract containing the old language.

It took seven years for Gary Bloom to get justice _ and even now the NLRB or the Local 12 may prolong the case with an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But regardless of what they do, all Americans may soon have the rights his battle secured for those in the 8th Circuit. This October, the Supreme Court will hear a similar case, Marquez vs. Screen Actors Guild. If the court follows the precedent in Beck and now Bloom, it will once again find in favor of individual rights.

Perhaps the third time will prove charmed and American workers will finally be able to exercise in practice the rights they have long been promised in theory.