What Happens If We Lose Dues Check-Off? Hand-Collecting and Thriving

UE Local 274 members picketing Kennametal. Photo: David Cohen

Kennametal Corp. in western Massachusetts had a long history of bitter fights with United Electrical Workers Local 274.

But when the contract expired last year with no resolution of bargaining, the tool-making company notched up its anti-union attacks. Kennametal announced it would not abide by the dues check-off clause, the arbitration clause, or the union security clause. This was supposed to put pressure on the union, UE Local 274, to accept concessions.

The local decided to collect dues by hand, to show the company that the union wouldn’t be intimidated and that members were sticking together. We did not make paying dues the key issue to “keeping the union alive.” It was just another thing that had to be done.

Officers thought there was a bigger chance of misplacing checks or losing money if they tried to collect dues weekly. They decided on a monthly collection and posted the amount owed each month on the in-shop bulletin board. That information was also included on leaflets distributed regularly to keep members updated on negotiations.

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Members could either give their dues to a steward or officer, or mail them to the union hall. People paying cash got receipts. Out of the 75 members, only two refused to pay.

JUST ONE OF MANY TASKS

It harked back to the days when all dues were collected by hand. If workers got mad about something, they might not pay their dues that month. The stewards or officers would have to spend time with them going over their grievances.

Sometimes the grievances were real and had to be addressed, sometimes the company was lying to a worker about something and blaming it on the union, and other times the worker was just looking for an excuse to not pay dues.

Many members paid ahead in their dues, but some were bad at paying bills in general. We had to distinguish why someone was falling behind. Some stewards and officers were better than others at collecting, and at talking to people who were falling behind.

Collecting dues was not stewards’ and officers’ main task. It was one among many: getting members to wear T-shirts, come to after-work gate meetings, sign petitions, picket before work, and prepare grievances and Labor Board charges. Officers in charge of keeping the books had to maintain accurate lists of who had paid and how much. They had a complicated job, depositing dozens of checks and lots of cash.

Some members wanted to fight more with backward members than with the company. They wanted monthly lists posted of who was not paying dues. We argued that this would turn the fight internally rather than with the company, and it would give the company targets to work on if people were falling behind.

For six months, until the contract was settled, the union collected dues by hand. New hires had to be talked into it. (The company was telling new hires they didn’t have to join.) All the new hires joined the union and began paying dues.

Collecting dues by hand showed the strength of the union as an institution in the workplace. Members disagreed on many aspects of the contract struggle, but they were united in keeping the union functioning.

In the end, the local won a contract that protected new hires and fought off the worst concessions.



David Cohen is a rep for the UE in western Massachusetts.


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