January 22, 1998

January 22, 1998 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Give Workers Their Dues

"Give me liberty, or give me death."

"… but one life to lose for my country."

"…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Phrases like these, inscribed beneath the marble busts of great patriots, stand as immortal rebukes to tyranny. But some Americans are still being treated as subjects-not by foreign kings but by union officials who regally use members' dues for political causes objectionable to much of the rank and file.

Clearly, labor unions have no right to spend dues in this way. In the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Communications Workers of America vs. Beck, the high court ruled that union members may freely choose what political activities they support. Labor leaders can use union dues for purposes related to collective bargaining, which is as it should be. But under Beck, they can't take the dues of a union electrician who favors free trade, and use them to support trade barriers if he objects. A teacher who backs school choice can refuse to allow her union dues to be used in a campaign against educational vouchers.

That's the theory, anyhow. In practice, things often break down, leaving some high-handed labor lords to spend member dues as they please.

Ignorance is these leaders' main weapon. Most union members simply are in the dark about their rights under Beck, with 78 percent, according to one poll, unaware they can get a refund if their union spends their dues on political causes they dislike. Naturally, union kingpins and those politicians on the receiving end of union contributions aren't keen on lighting any candles. In 1992, President George Bush ordered government contractors to post notices on employee bulletin boards about Beck. Bill Clinton hardly had time to brush the inauguration confetti from his coat before he repealed the order.

Of course it's no mystery why the labor lords fight Beck tooth-and-toenail. If workers started to take advantage of their dues-paying rights under the law, the political clout of the bosses would plummet.

Consider: About 40 percent of union members normally vote Republican. During the 1996 election, however, union leaders spent up to $500 million in unregulated contributions to defeat Republican House candidates. What if all GOP union members demanded their dues back? To many union honchos, this would be a full-galloping nightmare.

Union leaders will always comply grudgingly-if at all-when individual workers try to assert their rights under the Beck decision. What's needed to bolster those rights is affirmative legislation.

Happily, lawmakers in all 50 states plan to offer legislation prohibiting the use of a union member's dues for political purposes without the member's express permission. In California, a "paycheck protection" initiative-requiring both employers and unions to get workers' written OKs before using their money for politics-is headed for the June ballot. Similar grassroots drives are moving forward in at least eight other states. In Congress, comparable workers-rights legislation also is in the offing.

Union membership should not require American workers to betray their most deeply felt convictions. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves or abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

Strong words from the founder of the Democratic Party, who understood that not all kings sit on thrones and brandish scepters.

About the Author

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