ED020196: Compulsory Union Dues Pay For Politics

COMMENTARY Jobs and Labor

ED020196: Compulsory Union Dues Pay For Politics

Feb 1st, 1996 3 min read

Commentary By

Charles P. Griffin

Policy Analyst, Transportation and Infrastructure

Marshall Wittmann


While Democrat Ron Wyden's victory in the Oregon special election is sure to spark speculation about which party will win big this November, it also shows how the money of average Americans can be used against their wishes.

After all, the AFL-CIO and other labor unions provided tremendous support for Wyden's candidacy. And all too often labor union officials rely on compulsory dues to finance political activism.

The pro-Wyden effort provides a glimpse at organized labor's plans for the 1996 elections. The AFL-CIO recently announced a plan to spend more than $35 million this year -- seven times the usual amount -- on electioneering. Unfortunately, many of these activities will be financed involuntarily by rank-and-file union members who may disagree with the agendas of union officials. Republican and Democratic unionists alike are compelled to pay dues to the labor officials; these dues are then used to pay for many political activities.

Congress may soon debate campaign finance reform legislation. Ending this unjust abuse of hard-working men and women should be a part of any true reform.

In the past few months, a sleeping giant awoke when the AFL-CIO elected a new leadership dedicated to advancing a far-left political agenda. When John Sweeney took over the union's leadership late last year he pledged greater political involvement by the organization.

After his installation as AFL-CIO president, Sweeney swiftly moved to put a new face in charge of election activities by naming former Clinton administration Labor Department official Steve Rosenthal as the union's political director. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich declared, "Steve Rosenthal will be a valuable asset in the new leadership's mission to revitalize the nation's union movement." Sweeney said Rosenthal's task would be "building a powerful, progressive national movement of working people."

The just-completed special election in Oregon to fill the seat of former Sen. Robert Packwood provided the new leaders a chance to flex their partisan muscles. According to AFL-CIO documents, there were more than 25 union activists (12 from the AFL-CIO alone) devoted full-time to the efforts to elect a Democratic senator.

Political director Rosenthal bragged, "We're mailing endorsement pieces to 75,000 union members and persuasion pieces to an estimated 40,000." The AFL-CIO newsletter noted that "another 100,000 fliers comparing the candidates' records are being produced, and phone banks have been set up across the state."

The AFL-CIO did not act alone, however. By joining forces with at least 11 other unions, organized labor was able to mount a considerable presence in this one race. Among the other participants were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Association of Letter Carriers, and the Teamsters. The considerable firepower these organizations mustered resulted in more than $183,000 in political action committee (PAC) donations to the democratic candidate. Not a single dollar of union donations went to the GOP nominee. Are all union members Democrats? We doubt it.

Of course, these direct donations were only a small part of the picture. No doubt many of the organizers, mailings and phone banks were financed directly by the unions at substantially more than the cost of the PAC donations.

Union tactics came under scrutiny by the media and the voters. The Teamsters were heavily criticized for ads they ran blaming the death of a teenage worker on the Republican candidate's business. Even the beneficiary of the Teamsters efforts, Ron Wyden, was forced to issue a public statement disavowing the ad and encouraging the union to pull it off the air. Fair-minded union members of either party could strongly object to such tactics. Yet, their dues more than likely paid for them.

Union politicking is nothing new. There is no question that labor unions have a right to participate in the electoral process. But as the clamor for campaign finance reform continues, it behooves members of Congress to consider whether it is just to force union members to pay for political activities whether they agree with those activities or not. Corporations may not provide this sort of direct candidate support and neither should their organized labor counterparts.

Meaningful reform must level the playing field and ensure that only voluntary contributions are used for politics. Aggressive political activities by labor unions must not be funded by coercion. Congress should end these corrupt practices.

Note: Marshall Wittmann is director of congressional relations and Charles P. Griffin is deputy director of the Government Integrity Project at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.