May 7, 1998 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

The Battle Over Union Dues in California

On June 2, California voters will be asked to decide if union workers should continue to have $40 million of their dues spent without their permission for political purposes they may oppose. Passage of Proposition 226 would ensure that California workers have the freedom to decide what to do with their money.

What happens in California will have huge political ramifications for the nation. Voters in other states such as Nevada and Oregon are collecting signatures for similar ballot initiatives this year and legislation that would accomplish the same goal as Proposition 226 is pending in 26 state legislatures. In 1992, a similar initiative in Washington state received 70 percent of the vote and this year Wyoming became the fourth state to pass legislation that protects workers' paychecks.

Proposition 226 would require union leaders to get their members' written permission before using any dues for political purposes. And it would block employers from making automatic deductions from paychecks for political contributions or expenditures without the workers' annual written permission. Far from silencing workers, the initiative would guarantee them the freedom to choose which political causes they want their money to support.

California's 2.2 million public- and private-sector union members pay approximately $880 million per year in union dues. Union leaders spend as much as 4.6 percent of this, or $40.5 million, for political purposes. Passage of Proposition 226 would put a lot of this money back in the pockets of workers. For example, each year it would return $4.2 million to 230,000 teachers, $2.2 million to 118,000 truck drivers, $1.1 million to 62,000 police officers, $1.6 million to 85,000 postal workers, and $3.8 million to 204,000 mechanics and repairers.

Of course, some of these workers would choose to continue contributing to the political activities of their unions. That is their right. Others would not. That should be their right as well.

Freedom of choice appeals to a majority of Californians. A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 66 percent of likely voters and 58 percent of union members support Proposition 226. Yet, despite this broad public and union member support, union leaders are spending money out of their members' paychecks to oppose it. The California Teachers Association has pledged to spend $3 million to defeat Proposition 226 despite the fact it is supported by 70 percent of the union's members. In March, the executive council of the AFL-CIO voted to take $13 million out of members' paychecks -- $2.2 million from California workers alone -- to defeat initiatives like Proposition 226 across the nation this year.

Most amazing of all: What Proposition 226 would accomplish is already the law. In the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Communications Workers of America vs. Beck, the high court ruled that union members may 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, high-handed labor lords spend member dues as they please. Ignorance is their main weapon. Most union members simply don't know their rights under Beck, with 78 percent, according to one poll, unaware they can get a refund if union leaders spend their dues on political causes they dislike.

Naturally, union leaders and those politicians on the receiving end of union contributions aren't keen on sharing the truth. 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.

Union members who try to stop their dues from being used for political purposes they disagree with are frequently stonewalled or intimidated by their unions. As one California worker testified before Congress: "I was attacked on my employers' property by an officer of the union. An eyewitness gave testimony that I was repeatedly struck and never fought back … The union called my home and told me they were actively working to get me fired." Under Proposition 226, union organizers no longer would be able to threaten their members this way.

When union members question their leaders about political spending they are often told to pay up and shut up. As another California worker testified before Congress: "I usually was told the same thing from the union higher-ups, 'If you don't like it, quit' ... Whenever pressing about the union supporting something I didn't believe in, I was always treated like a jerk. I felt intimidated whenever I would ask union officials about the union funding certain parties."

This kind of political bullying must stop. Proposition 226's consent provision would improve union accountability to its membership and help restore workers' trust in the honesty and integrity of their unions. And that could wind up being a bigger help to organized labor than any of the political favors money can buy.