Lawmakers Move to Reform Union Political Finance Practices

Lawmakers Move to Reform Union Political Finance Practices
April 1, 2005

Public employee unions' political practices are drawing increased scrutiny from state-level lawmakers, some of whom are moving forward with reforms aimed at protecting the rights of individual union members.

The moves come in response to the practice of organized labor in recent years steering a substantial portion of its resources away from collective bargaining activities and toward political action. Public sector unions typically support policies that would expand government spending and payrolls.

One of the first states to respond was Utah, which enacted the Voluntary Contributions Act in 2001. Court challenges kept the law from being implemented until last year. The act seeks to ensure that public sector unions keep dues paid for representational purposes away from politics.

Idaho enacted similar legislation in 2003.



Unions Fought Vigorously

Labor leaders in Utah fought the law vigorously, but the courts ultimately upheld it. The law went into effect in 2004, and the results have been dramatic.

The Utah Education Association (UEA), arguably the strongest political interest group in the state, saw its political action committee income plummet by 85 percent. The union was denied the ability to transfer dues directly to political action and was concurrently denied special access to public worker paychecks through PAC payroll deductions.



National Movement Brewing

Several major national organizations are now making the case for further labor reform.

The National Legal and Policy Center has established an Organized Labor Accountability Project to document and publicize internal union corruption, while the new Alliance for Worker Freedom advocates policy reforms aimed at empowering individual workers rather than union officials. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has developed several model bills aimed at promoting financial transparency and reform in state public sector unions.

"ALEC members are concerned about protecting the rights of America's working men and women, whether they are in a labor union or not," said ALEC's Trevor Martin.



Public Employees Crucial

The recent spike in union political activity parallels labor's increased reliance on the public sector for members. The 2005 Union Members Survey report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, released January 27, reports only 7.9 percent of the total U.S. private sector workforce chooses to join a labor union, whereas 36 percent of public sector workers are in unions.

In the 1990s, Democrat governors supported by organized labor provided generous rewards to public sector unions. Some organized state workers by executive order (as in Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri), while others required workers who refused to join a labor union to pay agency fees to the union if they are covered by a union collective bargaining agreement (as in California).

The use of political power to promote unionization in the private sector continues to be a labor objective, and the drive to impose "project labor agreements" that essentially eliminate non-union firms from bidding on public works projects provides a prime example. (See "Illinois Contractors Fight Union-Friendly Order," Budget & Tax News, March 2005.)

Perhaps the clearest example of recent union political action came in the 2004 presidential election, when hundreds of millions of dollars in labor money was allocated to the defeat of President George W. Bush.

Many union officials justified the campaign as merely "representing" the will of union members, but post-election surveys found nearly 50 percent of union households supported Bush. The vast majority of union resources were used to support Democrat John Kerry.



Workers Fighting Back

While union officials often pretend dissenting union members do not exist, the Internet is giving such workers the opportunity to express their opinions ... and their dissatisfaction with union abuses of dues for politics.

One firefighter who supported Bush in 2004 put it this way in a message posted on firefightersforbush.com on March 11:

"I am a union firefighter. I support my local on local and national issues. However, I don't support Kerry for President. I am offended that my dues are constantly used to support candidates that I oppose.

"I hope that the general public understands that when they see all those yellow & black banners that say, 'Firefighters for Kerry' that those signs don't actually speak for all firefighters.

"Those posters should say, 'Firefighter's LABOR UNION for Kerry.'"



Law Supports Workers

Union members do not have to watch their dues be used to support candidates they oppose. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its Beck (1988) and Hudson (1986) decisions, found that the portion of a union member's dues used for political advocacy is protected under the member's First Amendment rights. A union cannot use an objecting member's dues for politics.

While that sounds simple and straightforward, state lawmakers are discovering Beck and Hudson rights are not self-enforcing, and union officials have little incentive to inform members of how they can avoid financially supporting union political action.

In response, state lawmakers are increasingly taking action to require unions to pay for their political action solely through voluntary funds established for that purpose, and requiring the union funds to file disclosure reports as any other state political committee would.

In Georgia, for example, Rep. Ron Forster (R-Ringgold) is promoting legislation similar to Utah's Voluntary Contributions Act.

"My bill will provide a choice for taxpayer union members employed by the State of Georgia on whether their dues can be diverted to state and local political candidates," said Forster. "This is an issue of fairness and sunshine following a common sense approach for campaign finance reform. Public support seems overwhelming--when I am out I ask people whether they believe a union should get a member's approval before dues can be spent on politics, and every time the answer has been 'Yes!'"


Ron Nehring (rnehring@atr-dc.org) is senior consultant at Americans for Tax Reform.


For more information ...

Visit the Web sites of the National Legal and Policy Center, http://www.nlpc.org; Alliance for Worker Freedom, http://www.workerfreedom.org; and American Legislative Exchange Council, http://www.alec.org.