August 28, 2003

August 28, 2003 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Still Laboring

Some holidays inspire us to celebrate our collective heritage. We watch fireworks on July Fourth. On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices made by our troops.

 

Labor Day, like the movement it symbolizes, is much younger than those venerable holidays, and tends to be seen mostly as a final summer fling. But it's more than that. It highlights the value of work, a theme stressed frequently over the years by our labor unions.

 

Given the large role unions have played in our history, and the glaring disconnect today between labor leaders and the rank-and-file, this is also a good time to reflect on what the labor movement ought to be in the 21st century.

 

Last year, just 13 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's well down from the 20 percent who were union members back in 1983. The sharp decline may be because today's unions are far less likely to reflect the views of their members than unions were 100, 50 or even 20 years ago.

 

For example, according to election night polling by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, one-third of union members voted for President Bush in the 2000 presidential election. That isn't reflected in union donations to political campaigns.

 

According to The Washington Post, in that same election, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gave the Democratic National Committee $1.27 million in the weeks before election day. That's about $1 for each union member. It's safe to assume that at least a third of that -- more than $400,000 -- was spent opposing the Republican candidate that one-third of AFSCME union members went out to vote for.

 

That's just a single union in a single election. For years now, almost all union funding has gone to Democratic candidates. In the 2002 election cycle, 93 percent of labor donations -- more than $89 million -- went to Democrats. Only 7 percent -- about $6.4 million -- was given to Republicans.

 

In theory, union members are able to "opt out" of having their dues spent on politics. But in reality, doing so is difficult. The member has to leave the union, and send an objection letter stating that it should refund the amount of his dues it spends on political campaigns.

 

Plus leaving a union can be difficult, even dangerous. Union leaders have a vested interest in keeping membership high. They're not above using all sorts of "pressure" to encourage members to remain part of the "brotherhood." Intimidation is clearly keeping many Republican-leaning union members silent, even as their dues are spent on campaigns they disagree with.

 

It wasn't always this way. A century ago, when Labor Day was young and unions were just gaining strength, they really did speak for their members. Unions were less political and more activist. They helped close down sweatshops, end child labor and guarantee workers a fair wage for a day's pay.

 

But today, with many people working at safe jobs, in comfortable offices, for reasonable pay, there's just not as much for unions to do. That's why they focus so much money and energy on supporting the Democratic Party -- because it's the only way for them to remain relevant.

 

Americans enjoy the right of free association. Anyone who wants to belong to a union, contribute to a union, or work for a union should always have the right to do so.

 

But we should also celebrate the right of Americans not to associate with groups they disagree with. And American workers shouldn't be compelled to contribute money toward causes they don't support. Extending to everyone the right to work, with or without membership in a union, would make this a happier Labor Day for all of us.      

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