Steve Beard recalls clearly when he started to think that his union didn't always serve his interests. It was after Christmas in 1989, his first year working as a loader and unloader for United Parcel Service in Sunnyvale, California. UPS had made record profits and announced bonuses of $1,000 for each full-timer and half that for part-timers like Beard, who was making $9 an hour working the shift from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m.
"That was two weeks' pay," says Beard, who at the time was 19 and playing football for a local junior college. But his union, Teamster Local 287, didn't care. It opposed the bonuses. A union steward even asked Beard to protest the bonus by not cashing his check. (Beard reckons the union's aversion to bonuses was directly related to its dues structure. Since monthly dues were two hours' pay, the union didn't get a cut of non-hourly compensation.) "My attitude was, `Screw you, I'm going to cash it,'" boasts Beard. And he did.
A decade later, Beard retains his "screw you" attitude toward the union. He complains of union opposition to profit sharing and stock options. "It's so hypocritical," he explains. "The union complains about the profit–why doesn't it want some of it?" And it has rubbed him raw over the years that the Teamsters won't allow UPS to negotiate airline benefits for its workers on the commercial carriers it uses to ship packages. Like the cash bonuses, such perquisites would be non-hourly compensation. "Federal Express negotiated airline benefits," he points out. And in August 1997, Beard was enraged when the "crazy zealots running the union sent us out to strike without a vote on the contract."
In September 1997, after the strike was settled, Beard stumbled upon Beck rights on the Internet. Under the Supreme Court decision by that name, he discovered, employees working under union contracts have the right to resign from the union without losing their jobs, continuing to pay only the portion of dues that covers contract negotiation and maintenance. He resigned from the union and kept his job. It was his final "screw you"–or so he thought.
The Teamsters are now attempting to screw Beard. On December 4, 1997, Local 287's internal court convicted him of calling "a group of drivers, television and newspaper reporters to undermine the Union on the United Parcel Service/Teamster contract." It fined him $10,000.
On July 9, 1997, Teamsters rank and file voted to authorize a strike against UPS, a tactic known as a "leverage vote," which puts the company on notice that if talks break down, union leadership can call a strike. So the strike called in August wasn't unauthorized. What Beard and others objected to was that the Teamsters leadership sent the drivers out to picket their employer and harass their customers without allowing them the opportunity to read and vote on UPS's last contract offer. To communicate to other drivers, his customers, and the public his desire to vote on the contract, Beard gathered a few other drivers to speak with print and television reporters. It's for this exercise of free assembly and free speech that he was charged with undermining the union and fined. Beard worries that if he is forced to pay, he will lose his house.
Teamsters Local 287 is not the only labor union that expresses contempt for the free speech rights Americans take for granted. And one need not be a longtime rabble-rouser like Beard to be fined into silence. About three hours northeast of Sunnyvale in the greater Sacramento area, seven members of Teamsters Local 150 are facing fines ranging from $1,000 to $4,500. They, too, publicly expressed a desire to review and vote on the final UPS contract offer before being forced to pick up picket signs for $55 a week.
Like Beard, one of the seven, Billy Radakovitz, faces a fine for speaking to the press at his own house. The official charge, of which he was convicted in an internal court, reads as follows:
"On or about August 11, 1997, Brothers Amick, Baker, and Radakovitz provided an interview with the media, knowingly gave or attempted to give, directly or indirectly, information to UPS and the public in general, for the purpose of assisting the Employer, and knowingly sought to undermine the official strike activities by unauthorized means."
In addition to Radakovitz's backyard press conference, seven members of Local 150 headed to the state capitol, where they called for a contract vote on August 15, 1998. "I told the media that UPS was offering a contract they claimed was fair and the Teamsters claimed it was terrible and I just wanted to see the contract myself and decide for myself whether it is indeed fair or not," recalls Radakovitz, whose picket sign stated "Let Us Vote." Because of this action, which Local 150 characterizes as "an unauthorized assembly," the union fined the seven drivers $2,500 each for voicing "their objection to the official policies of the Union."
Radakovitz, unlike Beard, is not fundamentally anti-union, although he admits he would be considered "pro-company" in a drivers' world which sorts individuals into the three categories of "pro-union," "pro-company," and "don't care." (Just under half are reportedly split evenly between the first two factions, the agnostics being the largest group.) "I love my job," Radakovitz enthuses. "I've had some crappy jobs I've been paid a quarter of this to do. Sometimes I'll just chuckle that they pay me to do this."
Combined with his enthusiasm is the economic reality that the Radakovitzes need each of Billy's roughly $800-a-week paychecks to keep current on their mortgage and enable his wife, Laura, to remain home to take care of their three children.
"I wasn't going to watch the bank take my house away because I was out of work," says Radakovitz. So before he went out on strike, he wanted some questions answered about the specifics of the proposed contract. For his inquisitiveness, Radakovitz now faces fines of $3,500.
"I'm quite surprised they would do this," says Clyde W. Summers, a labor law specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and co-author of an ACLU handbook titled The Rights of Union Members. Labor law is a tangled thicket, and one normally needs the guidance of a machete-wielding lawyer to trudge through it. But the right of members to free speech is one area that labor law followers across the political spectrum agree is relatively straightforward.
Labor unions, as constituted under the National Labor Relations Act and The Railway Labor Act, are anomalous institutions in American society. They appear to be private associations and thus, like the Reason Foundation, General Motors, or a Bible study group, don't have to guarantee members free speech. And this is partially true. Unions aren't restricted by the Bill of Rights.
But since the federal government grants unions the rights of "exclusive representation," which they then use to justify the forced payment of dues from members and Beck objectors alike, they aren't private, voluntary associations. "The rights of individuals with reference to their union," Summers' ACLU handbook notes, "are much like the rights of citizens in reference to their government."
Just as the Framers of the Constitution attempted to limit the federal government's authority over individuals with the Bill of Rights, Congress attempted to limit the power of labor unions over the individuals they represent with the 1959 Landrum-Griffen Act. The first title of this act, the "Bill of Rights of Members of Labor Organizations," grants union members free speech rights that are at least as broad as those protected by the First Amendment.
The act's "freedom of speech and assembly" clause states: "Every member of any labor organization shall have the right to meet and assemble freely with other members; and to express views, arguments, or opinions." There is an exception: "Nothing herein shall be construed to impair the right of a labor organization to adopt and enforce reasonable rules as to the responsibility of every member toward the organization and to his refraining from conduct that would interfere with its performance of its legal or contractual obligations." But courts have read this exception narrowly to include such obviously detrimental actions as advocating the decertification of the union or disclosing confidential bargaining strategy.
"I would say that this is a violation of their free speech rights under Landrum-Griffen," says Summers when I describe the Beard and Radakovitz's cases to him. Summers tell of a 1973 case, Kuebler v. Lithographers and Photo-Engravers Local 24-P, in which union members formed a caucus during a strike to urge a settlement. The union attempted to punish the caucus members, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even speech during a strike was protected.
"So the protection of free speech in this situation goes a long way," says Summers. "The fact that [Beard and Radakovitz] brought in the press doesn't matter, because the statute makes clear they are free to make their speeches inside or outside the union."
Indeed, that is what Radakovitz thought. Before he spoke to the press, his wife read the relevant portion of Summers' handbook. "We knew it was our right to do this," she says.
So where does that leave the eight dissidents? The union is free to convict in its internal courts, but to collect the fines, especially against members who subsequently quit the union, as did Radakovitz and Beard, the Teamsters must rely on civil courts. Local 287's attorney, Kenneth C. Absalom, of the San Francisco firm of Beeson, Taylor & Bodine, sent Beard a letter on October 6, 1998, promising to "proceed with collection proceedings," but Beard has heard nothing from him or the union since. Local 287 Secretary-Treasurer Ray Corrie claims to be "collecting the money in court." He denies that union members forgo free speech rights when signing up for his union. He refers me to Absalom, who refuses to talk to REASON, fearing that it is read by the folks at the National Right to Work Foundation, the non-profit legal defense organization that is representing Beard.
For his part, Beard expects Local 287, which has proceeded against him in inexplicable spurts and stops, like a rookie driver with a stick shift, to sue him in state court. He plans to fight as long as it takes to vindicate his right to free speech.
Radakovitz and three others fighting Local 150 are set to appear on January 4, 1999, in the Placer County's Small Claims Court. Two others will fight their cases out in the Sacramento County Small Claims Court two days later. If they lose in small claims court, where they must represent themselves, they are free to take their case to California's state courts for full-blown litigation. Radakovitz, like Beard, plans to fight until he wins or runs out of courts.
"If the union actually wins," says Radakovitz, "morally I am not sure how I will handle it. I have been so confident that anybody in this country could stand up and ask a question without being made out to be a criminal. I just wanted some answers to some questions."
Michael W. Lynch (email@example.com) is REASON's Washington editor.