News Story

Union 'Dues' vs. Union 'Fees': Michigan Union Head Deliberately Clouds the Issue

AFL-CIO Michigan President Karla Swift resorted to half-truths and misrepresentations to deflect key questions during a recent radio interview about how unions collect dues from their members.

Her verbal ducking and weaving took place as Michael Cohen, host of Capital City Recap, repeatedly asked about Michigan potentially becoming a right-to-work state.

Capitol City Recap is a feature of Lansing-area radio station WILS 1320. The interview was aired on June 7. Rather than answer inquiries as to what changes a right-to-work law would bring about, Swift used a longstanding union ploy: She focused on the word "dues" and avoided the word "fee."

A right-to-work law prohibits contracts that require payment of union dues or fees as a condition of employment. Federal courts have ruled that an employee can opt out of union membership and can't be forced to pay dues. However, without a right-to-work law, contracts can require employees to pay a union administrative fee. These fees are typically from 65 percent to 90 percent of what is levied for dues.

Basically, right to work is about freeing employees from being forced to pay these union fees. For years, union leaders have allowed the confusion between union dues and union fees to cloud the issue.

The following is the portion of the interview that pertained to right to work:

Cohen (show host): "It does seem hard though to argue against the idea that a worker really shouldn't be forced to pay union dues and that his or her employment should not hinge on being part of a union. How do you argue against that?"

Swift (union president): “Well there . . .  we need to be clear. There is no law requiring forced dues or compulsory membership in Michigan. That just doesn't exist."

Cohen: “When you take a position that's a unionized job you have to pay dues into the union, don't you?"

Swift: “No, absolutely not. It would be against the law. There is no law that requires that."

Cohen. “My understanding, with right to work, is that it doesn't really disallow unions, it just says that as a union member you can forgo paying dues if you want to. Is that not the crux of the issue?"

Swift: “There's no compulsory membership or dues in Michigan. Those are agreements that are reached through contract negotiations. And there is no law that requires that."

Cohen: “What does it mean to you then if Michigan were to become a right-to-work state? What does that mean, exactly, to you?"

Swift: “What, what? What right to work means . . . ?”

Cohen: “What would change in Michigan if we were to become a right-to-work state then?"

Swift: “That all workers would do worse — both union and non-union alike — do worse under those kinds of state laws. Again, that has . . . that is not something that helps drive a strong economic outcome."

Cohen: “Isn't the whole concept of right to work the shift to simply allow voluntary dues payments? Isn't that what right to work is all about?"

Swift: “Workers have a choice now. They have the choice whether to pay dues . . . they have the choice whether to be members. They have all kinds of choices in the democratic process of unionism from electing their representatives to voting on their contracts to voting on new representatives at times when terms of office are up."

Cohen: “Are you essentially saying though — if I understand correctly — that becoming a right-to-work state in Michigan wouldn't change the technicalities of dues payments for unionized workers here in Michigan."

Swift: “I can only reiterate that there are no compulsory dues or membership requirements in the state of Michigan.”

To hear the audo, see the video below.

Ironically, in the WILS 1320 top of the hour news break after the Swift interview, American Federation of Teachers Michigan President David Hecker demonstrated another union dodge.

In the context of the state Senate passing this year's education budget, Hecker was asked what schools would be getting. His answer was to rehash the alleged education cuts made by Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled legislature in 2011. This year's budget did not include any new alleged cuts.

Had Hecker answered the question, the answer would have been on average $100 per student less than the $11,987 per student (federal and state dollars) Michigan schools got in 2010. The alleged 2011 cuts included money schools could still qualify for by achieving certain benchmarks.


Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.