What Happens If We Lose Dues Check-Off? Check-Off by Other Means

As public workers from Wisconsin to Idaho face legislative efforts to eliminate dues check-off rights, how we fund and sustain our organizations has become a central question. Here in the right to work South, where public employees have never had the right to bargain collectively, we struggle with self-sustainability every day. Here’s the good news: while having dues check-off helps, not having it isn’t fatal.

I am an organizer and former president of Communications Workers Local 3865 in Tennessee. We organize public higher education workers. In the last decade we’ve built a non-majority union that’s grown from two dozen members on one campus to more than 1,200 in eight cities.

In the 1930s, as modern unionism was taking off, dues check off did not exist. Unions tried many things. Giving lapel buttons to workers who paid their dues proved popular for industrial unions, auto workers and electrical workers among them. That method isn’t going to cut it these days.

Forum: What Happens if We Lose Dues Check-Off?

Hand-Collecting and Thriving
Check-Off by Other Means

In the early years of our union, elements of our leadership argued that having to hand-collect dues kept the local’s leaders and organizers honest.

This attitude meant attending weekly meetings to make plans to collect dues. Quickly we realized that spending the majority of our time playing bill collector was not part and parcel of union democracy, nor did it help build the kind of political relationships we’re aiming for on the job.

Stewards need to spend their time listening to co-workers, gathering opinions about how to build the union, organizing meetings, and working to save jobs from budget cuts.

One method we landed on for dues collection is the bank draft, where the union deducts dues straight from members’ accounts. Ideally, this means that when new recruits fill out a membership form they also write down their bank routing number and account number. This is our “dues agreement.”

NEW LAYER OF CONVINCING

Needless to say, the bank draft adds a new layer of difficulty in signing up members. Not only must the member or staff organizer move the worker into action, but we also have to convince them to give us their damn bank info!

Very few people sign on first contact. A longer relationship must be built. Thus union strategies built around a quick campaign “before the boss wakes up” are non-starters for us.

Bank drafts are complicated. We have a number of different drafts depending on pay periods. As anyone who has lived from paycheck to paycheck knows, automatic withdrawals need to be timed so that enough “available funds” are left behind to ensure groceries and gas don’t overdraw the account. When possible we deduct dues from the check that does not contain the health insurance premium.

We now know all the local bank routing numbers, so new members signing up can simply put their bank’s name. The form specifies savings or checking account, to prevent expensive returns. We ask all new members to sign up for bank draft, instead of giving an option to pay cash, which has increased participation in the automatic deduction.

The amount of work involved with the bank drafts is very large. Staff devote dozens of hours each month to setting them up, adding new members, and dealing with transaction fees, returns that slam the union with an additional fee, and the dreaded “drops” when folks quit.

Thousands of dollars annually are at stake, but it isn’t just money. It’s politics. Dues are an important expression of our commitment to our union, and one of the greatest resources we have. For us the choice is a simple one: bank draft or stop being a union.

As anti-union lawmakers in other states roll back cherished rights to check-off and bargaining, our sisters and brothers in the North will see the choice before them as clearly as we do down here in the South.

We need y’all to keep being union, too.



Tom Smith is a member of CWA Local 3865.


A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #385, April 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.