June 27, 1996 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

ED062796a: Politicking On The Workers' Dime

The silly season, otherwise known as the fall elections, is fast approaching.

And once again, one of the greatest travesties in American politics will be played out: Millions of Americans will be forced to help candidates and promote political positions they don't agree with.

How can such a thing happen in modern-day America? After all, isn't this the land of the free? Not if you're a rank-and-file union member in most states.

For years, big labor has engaged in one of the most undemocratic practices imaginable: using the dues workers must pay to the union as a condition of employment for partisan politicking. This year, with a friend of big labor in the White House, union officials are being more open about it. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced a few months ago that his organization would pump $35 million (seven times the amount unions usually spend on elections) into a nationwide campaign to unseat Republican congressmen he considers hostile to organized labor.

Two-thirds of the $35 million Sweeney plans to spend defeating Republican officeholders will come from a special "tax" that was imposed on union members in March. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia do not have right-to-work laws. This means working people can be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. If they don't like the political choices of union officials, they're out of luck.

The money that organized labor admits spending on partisan politics is vastly overshadowed by various "in-kind" expenditures unions make on behalf of candidates or causes. The late, great labor reporter Victor Riesel several years ago estimated that big labor spends $10 on political mailings, phone banks and other "in-kind" services for every dollar it openly spends on elections. You do the math.

Virtually all this money goes to Democratic candidates and incumbents. Yet, in 1994, exit polls found that 40 percent of union members voted Republican, for the very pro-family, tax-cutting, budget-balancing Republicans Sweeney and his colleagues have targeted for defeat.

So what's a union member to do?

For starters he or she may seek inspiration from a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In the case of Communications Workers of America v. Beck, union member Harry Beck objected to the fact that his union dues were being used to fund political activities he didn't support. Beck challenged his union and won. The court ruled that union members can get refunds on that portion of their dues not devoted to costs associated with collective bargaining. In Beck's case, "that portion" was found to be 80 cents out of every dollar.

Unfortunately, when President Clinton took office, he weakened the impact of the Beck decision by rescinding former President Bush's order that required notices be posted in the workplaces of federal contractors, notifying workers of their rights under Beck. Clinton ordered the notices be torn down. So much for being on the side of workers!

Union politicking is nothing new and unions have a right to participate in the electoral process. However, fair-minded citizens should ask whether it is just to force union members to pay for political activities--including helping candidates--with which they may not agree.

This is not a partisan issue. If you're a liberal or a Democrat, all you have to ask yourself is how you would react if the tables were turned: How would you feel if John Sweeney planned to spend $35 million in coerced union dues to help Newt Gingrich and his allies?

You'd be pretty angry.

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy