March 15, 1998 Fairness for Workers


Charles W. Baird

Emeritus Professor of Economics and Former Director of the Smith Center
California State University, East Bay


Proposition 226, the Campaign Reform Initiative, if passed by California voters on June 2, would protect workers' paychecks against compulsory deductions for political causes they do not support. This is, in fact, a simple case of fairness for workers - nothing more and nothing less. Labor unions, the chief culprits in forced paycheck deductions for politics, are bitterly fighting the initiative with a witches brew of silly arguments and outright lies.

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech, especially political speech, are both guaranteed by the First Amendment. With respect to the former Thomas Jefferson wrote, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he dicbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." Catholics, for example, should not be forced to contribute, through taxes or any other means, to the Episcopal Church. Today, everyone, even Episcopalians, agree.

Jefferson's admonition is equally applicable to free political speech. It would be sinful and tyrannical, for example, for members of any political party to coerce others to contribute money to its political causes. The Supreme Court has ruled that political contributions are a form of political speech. It follows that coerced political contributions are violations of our free speech rights.

Federal and California laws make it possible for California workers in unionized firms and government agencies such as schools to be forced to pay union dues and fees as a condition of continued employment. If they don't pay they get fired. However, the Supreme Court, in a series of rulings culminating in the Beck decision of 1988, has said that workers can only be forced to pay dues and fees for purposes closely related to collective bargaining. They cannot be forced to pay any dues and fees that are used for purposes such as politics. Recent polling has revealed that as many as 78% of workers are unaware that they can seek refunds of the portion their forced dues and fees that is used for non-collective bargaining purposes. From the various court cases it is reasonable to infer that somewhere around 80% of dues and fees collected by unions are used for such purposes, and at least 50% are used for politics.

Apart from the fact that most workers don't know they can claim such refunds, those who do run up against a refund process that is stacked against them. A worker is forced to self-identify as a dissenter from a union's politics and thus to be exposed to the various devices of persuasion that unions employ. Then the worker is forced to submit to a union-controlled arbitration process in which union-hired auditors get to determine how much union money is spent for politics and other impermissible purposes and therefore the size the refund. To oppose a union's decision a dissenting worker must hire a lawyer and undertake a long, costly process of litigation. It is no wonder that, of those who are brave enough to demand a refund, most accept the small refunds that their unions are willing to concede as the price of muzzling dissenters.

Proposition 226 would put a stop to these injustices. It requires any union to get annual written permission from each dues and fees payer before it invades his or her paycheck for political purposes. In other words, each worker gets to decide once each year whether or not to opt-in to a union's political agenda. No worker will have to incur the risks and the costs of opting-out by begging for refunds from a union because no union could take the money in the first place without the worker's written permission. In Washington state, after a similar measure was adopted by voters in 1992, the number of public school teachers who contributed to the Washington Education Association PAC fell from 48,000 to 8,000. It is amazing, and heartening, what workers will do when they are free to choose whether to make political donations.

One outright lie that the unions are using to oppose 226 is that it would muzzle the voice of labor in the political process. It does no such thing. Any worker can grant permission to a union to use the dues and fees he or she pays for political purposes. No one is muzzled. What the unions fear is that very few workers will choose to give the necessary permission and so the voice of the unions, not the workers, will be diminished in the political process. The interests of unions are not necessarily the same as the interests of workers. The Field Poll indicates that 70% of union households in California support 226. Nationally only 9.8% of private sector workers and 37% of state and local government employees are unionized, and many of these are forced to be unionized. The interests of workers in the political process can only be inferred from the choices they make when they are free to choose. Under 226 every union worker and every nonunion worker is free to choose whether and how much of their paychecks can be used for politics.

Another outright lie the unions are using to oppose 226 is that it is anti-worker. It obviously is not. To the contrary, since it restores free choice to workers in the political process, it is anti-coercion and pro-worker.

One silly argument that the unions are using to oppose 226 is that organizations like the National Rifle Association and Chambers of Commerce do not have to get written permission from each of their members before they spend money on politics. Therefore, they argue, unions should not have to get written permission from every worker who pays dues and fees. But the analogy is inapt. Members of the NRA and CCs have an easy way to avoid unwanted uses of their money for politics - they can quit the organizations without having to pay any penalty. In contrast, in California, where forced dues and fees are allowed, many workers who do not like the ways their dues and fees are spent in politics have no easy way out. If they stop paying dues and fees to the unions that represent them their employers are forced to fire them.

A similar, equally silly argument unions are using against 226 is that corporations do not have to get written permission from each of their stockholders before they spend money on politics so they shouldn't have to either. Again, the analogy is inapt (even inept). Dissenting stockholders have an easy out - they can sell their stock and invest in corporations that make better choices. Dissenting workers have no comparable, penalty-free exit option.

Finally, the unions' position on 226 is downright un-American. None of our First Amendment liberties - religion, speech, press and association - should be held hostage to the whims of those who run labor unions or any other private organization. If the First Amendment means anything it means that all Americans should be free to choose.

Charles W. Baird is professor of economics and director of The Smith Center for Private Enterprise Studies at California State University, Hayward.