In Pattern Makers v. NLRB, 473 U.S. 95 (1985), the United States Supreme Court held that union members have the right to resign their union membership at any time. Although Pattern Makers was a case arising under the National Labor Relations Act, which does not cover railway or airline industry employees, several lower courts have applied the same rule under the Railway Labor Act (which does cover railway and airline industry employees) in cases supported by the Foundation. It is the best legal judgment of Foundation attorneys that the Supreme Court would reach the same conclusion as these lower courts that unions under the Railway Labor Act cannot limit the right of nonmembers to resign at any time.
There is no question that you have the right to resign. In Ellis v. BRAC, 466 U.S. 435 (1984), a lawsuit that was supported by the Foundation, the United States Supreme Court held that nonmembers in the railway industry cannot be required to join the union or pay union fees equal to union dues. The most that they can be required to pay is a fee that equals their share of what the union can prove is its costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment with their employer.
The decision to resign or not is wholly yours. As a nonmember you not only have the right to limit your union fees to your share of the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment, but also you would not be subject to union rules and discipline. For example, nonmembers are not subject to union rules against working during a strike. If you are a union member, and you work during a strike, the union could potentially fine you and collect that fine in state court.
If you resign, the union would have to continue to represent you fairly and without discrimination in all matters subject to collective bargaining, and you could not be denied any benefits under the labor contract with your employer because of nonmembership.
On the other hand, you would not have the right to vote on ratification of the contract or election of union officers, and there may be benefits provided under the union’s constitution and bylaws that are not available to nonmembers (however, a nonmember cannot be charged a share of the costs of member-only benefits). These benefits could include continued participation in a union’s members-only retirement plan. Your participation in an employer-sponsored or jointly sponsored pension plan provided as an employee benefit cannot be adversely affected by nonmembership in a union.
You can resign by simply sending your union a written letter stating that you are resigning effective immediately. Similarly, you can assert your right not to pay for the union’s political activities by notifying it in writing that you object to use of your dues for purposes other than collective bargaining and contract administration. The union may assert that resignations can be submitted only during a specified time period. That, Foundation attorneys believe, is untrue, because such limitations on the right to resign were held unlawful in Pattern Makers.
You should check your union’s constitution and bylaws to see if it has any provision specifying to whom a resignation must be submitted. You should also check with the union to see if it has a policy concerning when and to whom Ellis objections (objections to the amount of the union fees) should be submitted. For links to union objection policies on the the Internet, click here.
If you have authorized payroll deduction of full dues, you might also have to notify your employer that you wish to authorize only the deduction of the portion of dues that is lawfully chargeable under Ellis. Notifying your employer of your change to Ellis-objector status should be construed as simply a change in the authorized amount of the deduction and be accepted by your employer, for immediate implementation, assuming you have also notified the union.
If you decide to resign and object, keep copies for your records of both your resignation and your objection letter. You should send both by certified mail, return receipt requested, so that the union cannot claim that it did not receive them. If your union and/or employer refuse to honor your resignation and/or objection, you should contact the Foundation immediately if you would like assistance.
Although you may wish to include in your objection letter the line that says your objection is continuing and permanent, some unions will not honor this and will make you annually renew your objections. The courts have issued inconsistent decisions on this point.
This information is not intended to advocate that you resign from the union and object to the amount of union fees. The intent is simply to explain your legal rights in this type of situation.
Click here if you would like to see a sample union resignation letter.