Union Dues Are About Building Democratic, Self-Sustaining, Working-Class Organizations

Bosses like management at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers are trying to unionize, love to bring up union dues as part of their union-busting. But union organizers shouldn’t shy away from talking about why dues are important: they allow workers to pool the resources needed to fight the boss and win.

Union meeting of sugar beet workers in Colorado, 1938. (Library of Congress)

As Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama cast their mail-in ballots in a potentially game-changing union certification vote, corporate management has been hitting them with a relentless barrage of anti-union propaganda.

As other companies have done when trying to brainwash their employees into voting against unionization, Amazon is attempting to stoke fears about paying union dues. The company has launched DoItWithoutDues.com, a disinformation website chock-full of infantilizing, cringeworthy slogans like, “Be a Doer, Not a Due’r” and “Dues Mean Don’ts.”

“WHY NOT save the money and get the books, gifts & things you want? DO IT without dues,” Amazon management tells the workers, presuming to lecture them about how they ought to spend their own wages.

This is fairly routine corporate rhetoric, cultivated over many years by the multimillion-dollar “union avoidance” industry. Workers at some of the largest employers in the country have long been subjected to anti-union propaganda telling them that organized labor is merely a “business” seeking to “sell memberships” in order to rake in that sweet dues money.

It can be an effective message. Working-class people struggling to make ends meet typically aren’t in a hurry to hand over their hard-earned money to an organization they know little to nothing about. Exploitative employers — who are the reason workers struggle to make ends meet in the first place — understand this fact and weaponize it.

For this reason, union organizers (myself included) usually aim to minimize the amount of time spent talking about dues and instead steer the conversation toward everything else that comes with being a union member: the ability to secure higher wages, improved benefits, and more job security, as well as having a genuine say in one’s own working conditions.

To be sure, good union organizers don’t sidestep the question of dues. That would do nothing to earn workers’ trust, and building trust is ultimately the most effective way to beat anti-union campaigns.

Organizers patiently explain to prospective new members that the wage raises unionized workers win are higher than the amount of money they pay in dues, leaving them with a net gain. Further, organizers point out that dues are crucial because they pay for the cost of representation, allowing the union to do all that is necessary to win good contracts and protect members’ rights.

For strategic purposes, these are solid and effective points to make, especially in the middle of an organizing conversation when a prospective member asks about dues and deserves an honest and straightforward answer.

But in a larger sense, privileging these arguments seems to concede a certain amount of ideological ground to anti-union, capitalist forces.

While employers tell workers that union dues are a wasteful transaction, organizers say they’re a worthwhile one — like a sound investment that brings healthy dividends or an insurance premium that guarantees you’re covered when problems arise. Either way, dues are imagined as simply another form of market exchange.

This is most unfortunate, because union dues are decidedly not a market transaction, nor an investment or a premium.

Union dues are something altogether different — they’re an expression of solidarity. They’re an instrument allowing workers to build collective power, a tangible measure of the working class becoming a class for itself.

In recent years, we have repeatedly seen examples of working-class people building power and expressing solidarity through their dollars. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign received a record-shattering five million individual contributions, primarily from working-class people like schoolteachers and workers at Amazon and Walmart, who took the campaign’s “Not Me, Us” motto to heart and helped make Bernie a formidable contender against other candidates bankrolled by billionaires. This past year, workers have donated generously on platforms like GoFundMe to support fellow working-class folks — often complete strangers — who are struggling amid the pandemic to pay bills and buy groceries.

Like a GoFundMe donation or Bernie campaign contribution, union dues are an example of working-class people pooling their limited financial resources to make big things happen — and are particularly powerful because they sustain permanent, democratic organizations.

While individual organizers may be limited in the kinds of conversations they can have with workers in the immediate term, in the longer term, as a labor movement and an organized Left, we should strive to stop framing union dues as a regrettable but necessary financial exchange, shifting how we all think about dues away from a “what’s-in-it-for-me” mentality and toward the principle of “all for one and one for all.”

Promoting that kind of spirit may ironically be easier in right-to-work states like Alabama and the post-Janus public sector, where dues at unionized workplaces are voluntary. But in places where the union shop still exists, workers are required to pay either dues or “agency fees,” which are dues prorated to the amount of money specifically spent on collective bargaining. Although agency fees from nonunion members are essential to union security, they can also be used to reinforce the notion that dues are merely transactional — that they simply pay for the cost of a service.

This is why it’s so important to continue building the kind of labor movement that constantly reminds everyone that while a union certainly provides workers with valuable on-the-job protections and economic advantages, unions are not just another service one pays for, like your insurance or electric bill. Unions are a vehicle for freedom and justice, funded and sustained by the very workers who make those unions powerful.

We should make no apologies for union dues, but instead make clear to Amazon and other employers that in spite of their anti-union messaging and horrific puns, we’re proud to be “due’rs.”

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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a member of UIC United Faculty, AFT Local 6456, and a former member of the UIC Graduate Employees Organization, AFT Local 6297.

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