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Religious Objector to Payment of Union Dues Fails to Show Bias

By Joanne Deschenaux  10/29/2007
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10/29/07 1:41 PM

Michigan: Religious Objector to Payment of Union Dues Fails to Show Bias

By Joanne Deschenaux

A union does not violate Title VII by failing to treat workers who object to paying dues on religious grounds in the same manner that it treats workers with objections to the use of dues for political purposes, a federal district court in Michigan ruled on Oct. 19. The court also held that the union’s obligation to reasonably accommodate the worker’s religious beliefs never arose because the worker had not been discharged or disciplined.

Jeffrey Reed was an hourly employee of AM General Corp. The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, the exclusive bargaining representative for the assembly line employees, had a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with AM General, which contained a union security provision requiring employees to join the union or pay nonunion member fees as a condition of employment.

AM General and the union also entered into an agreement that permitted employees who had a sincere religious objection to financially supporting labor organizations to satisfy their financial obligations under the CBA's union security provision by contributing to charity an amount equal to the dues established by the union constitution.

Reed joined the union shortly after he was hired by AM General in May 2002. For the first year of his union membership, Reed paid his full dues to the union.

In May 2003, Reed requested to be treated as an objecting member, and his request was granted. As a result of Communications Workers of America v. Beck, (487 U.S. 735 (1988)), the union's constitution had a provision that permitted nonmembers to object to the union's expenditure of their dues for purposes primarily political in nature and to receive a rebate of the amount of their dues so expended (“Beck objectors”).

In October 2004, Reed notified the union that he was terminating his membership. After that time, the union treated Reed as a Beck objector, and his union security payments were reduced to 78.29 percent of what union members and nonobjecting nonmembers paid.

In a letter to the union dated Feb. 10, 2005, Reed stated that he was a religious objector and requested that he be permitted to pay to the Disabled American Veterans an amount equal to the amount paid to the union by nonmember Beck objectors. Reed was permitted to pay the money to the charity but was required to pay the same amount that he would have paid to the union as a nonobjecting nonmember.

Reed filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After an investigation, the EEOC concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that a violation of Title VII had occurred and issued a right to sue letter. The EEOC concluded that the union “refused to make a nondiscriminatory reasonable accommodation to his sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Reed then filed a court action on Sept. 26, 2006, alleging that the union violated Title VII and seeking a declaration that he had the right to an accommodation of his religious beliefs that allowed him to pay only the amount of fees paid by nonmembers who objected for secular reasons.

The court first noted that the analysis of any religious accommodation case begins with the question of whether the employee has established an inference of religious discrimination. To do this, the employee must show that he or she:

    • Holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement.

    • Has informed his employer of the conflict.

    • Was discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.

With respect to the third element, the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Michigan has consistently held that religious discrimination requires discharge or discipline for failure to comply with an employment requirement, the court noted, and concluded that, without being able to establish that he had been either discharged or disciplined for failing to comply with the employer's requirements concerning union dues payments, Reed could not establish a case. Therefore, the court held that Reed’s claim failed, and the court was not required to consider whether the union provided a reasonable accommodation.

However, the court went on to conclude that even if Reed could establish an inference of religious discrimination, the union provided a reasonable accommodation for Reed's religious conflict, noting that an employee was entitled only to a reasonable accommodation, not an accommodation of his choosing. The accommodation provided by the union eliminated the conflict between the requirement that Reed pay dues to the union and Reed's personal religious beliefs and did not result in the loss of any employment benefit to Reed. Further, “it is not discriminatory to provide different accommodations to employees who assert different objections,” the court concluded, in dismissing Reed’s claim.

Reed v. United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, E.D. Mich., No. 06-14233 (Oct. 19, 2007).

Professional Pointer: In the case of a Beck objector, the money is still paid to the union, but the union may not use it for political purposes; the deduction taken represents the portion that would go to such uses. Reed’s contribution never went to the union at all, so the rationale supporting the deduction for Beck objectors would not seem to apply in his case.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.

Related Resource:

SHRM Religion in the Workplace Toolkit

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

For more Michigan news as well as recent developments in other states, visit State Workplace Law News on SHRM Online.

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SHRM Online Workplace Law Focus Area

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