July 16, 1998 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Big Labor's Big Test

California's Proposition 226, narrowly defeated in June because of an advertising campaign as massive as it was deceptive, would have required union leaders to get permission from rank and file members before spending their dues on politics. Although big labor won that round, a more significant battle lies ahead.

This fall, the Supreme Court will rule in a case that could strike at the heart of big labor's ability to coerce workers into its ranks.

The story begins with Naomi Marquez, an aspiring actress offered $550 to utter one line in a television show. Not bad money for such little work. The problem was with her contract, which required her to join the Screen Actors Guild and fork over $500 in dues. When she refused, she lost the part.

What happened to Naomi Marquez was illegal. The Supreme Court had already ruled in an earlier case that workers cannot be forced to join unions as a condition of employment. What's more, in Communications Workers vs. Beck, the Court ruled that workers can only be forced to pay the amount of dues needed to support the union's collective bargaining-the give-and-take sessions between labor and management over pay and benefits. Of course, the contract given to Ms. Marquez did not volunteer this information. A favorable ruling this fall in the Marquez case would outlaw such misleading contracts.

Of more immediate significance is the 1988 Beck decision, which prohibits unions from spending a member's dues on political causes when that member objects. Unfortunately, this hasn't prevented unions from doing so.

Until recently, many unions required members who challenged how their money was spent to take their complaints to union-funded arbitrators. The Supreme Court recognized these kangaroo hearings for what they were-rubber-stamp proceedings stacked in the unions' favor. Arbitration hearings were a favorite trick unions used to get around Beck. At least until last month when the Supreme Court halted them in Air Line Pilots Association vs. Miller.

Unions don't want workers to know their rights. That's right-big labor, caretaker of the proletariat, fighter for the exploited, hero of the forgotten underclass, wants to keep workers ignorant about Beck. President Bush understood this and ordered government contractors to post these rights on employee bulletin boards. President Clinton quickly did away with the order and now most union members don't know Beck from Barney.

Why don't unions want workers to know their rights? Bucks. A lot of them. Hugh Newton, a long time consultant to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, came up with a staggering estimate. He says that if only 25 percent of union-covered employees choose to become Beck objectors, union officials would lose $266 million per year.

Few can match big labor's financial resources, but the Right to Work Foundation will undertake Operation Liberty Bell, a media blitz of its own designed to inform workers of their Beck rights. Workers denied these rights can get free legal help from the foundation by calling 1-888-789-4255.

In spite of organized labor's victory over Proposition 226, workers already have the right to keep union bosses from spending their dues on politics thanks to Beck.

Several states will offer referenda similar to Proposition 226 this fall. Regardless of the results, just remember two things: You don't have to join a union, and you don't have to give money to big labor for politics.

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