Albion Monitor /News

Conservatives Trying to Block Unions From Politics

by Eric Espe

Conservatives mad because a portion of their union dues spent on candidates and issues they didn't agree with
George Harris was 17 when he worked full time as a busboy for the MGM Grande in Las Vegas. For $12 a month, he was granted membership in Nevada's largest labor organization, the Culinary Union.

"I was a kid," he says.

Harris found himself drawn to political activism. Too young to vote, he spent his off-hours as a precinct worker for the re-election campaign of Gerald Ford. "I was born a Republican," he says. "I've been involved in politics since I was 14."

But while Harris volunteered for President Ford, a portion of his union dues were being sent to the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, and eventually to the re-election campaign of Democrat Jimmy Carter. Harris may have been a Republican, but a majority in his union were Democrats. As it had for decades, the union spent some of its money backing labor-friendly, Democratic candidates for office.

Today, Harris is no longer a union member -- and he looks back on how his union dues were used with a sense of anger. In fact, he believes that the thousands of other conservative Republicans who have been members of organized labor during the past century have been wronged because a portion of their union dues was spent on candidates and issues they didn't agree with.

"Paycheck protection" bills would force unions to get written permission before spending dues on any kind of political objective
Union support for Democrats became especially visible in 1996, when the AFL-CIO spent $35 million on ads that attacked Republican politicians.

"By their own admission, 40 percent of their union members are Republicans," says Harris, who is now finance chairman of the Nevada Republican Party. "And by their own admission, 97 percent of their campaign contributions go to Democratic candidates."

Now conservatives across America are working to see this perceived disparity come to an end. An organization known as Americans for Tax Reform is spearheading a nationwide drive to change state laws so that unions would have to get written permission from individual members before dues could be spent on any kind of political speech.

Initiative drives are under way in Nevada, California and Oregon. Republicans have also filed "paycheck protection" bills in the legislatures of Arizona, Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin. Organizers hope to see "paycheck protection" on ballots or within the legislatures of all 50 states.

All the bills and ballot initiatives strive to do the same thing: Force unions to get written permission from their membership before spending individual members' dues on any kind of political objective.

If the initiative passes in Nevada, for instance, union members will be required to fill out a written request to have a union deduction go to a political cause. That request would have to be given to the employer first -- not the union -- and in some instances, the employer would be able to see which political cause the deduction would go to.

As put by the initiative, the signed form sent to an employer would indicate "the political-purpose destination of the particular deduction."

"A worker who chose to make a political contribution by deduction from compensation must affirmatively request the worker's own employer to make a political contribution deduction," the Nevada initiative reads.

Under the wording of the initiative, union members would literally need the consent of their employer before any of their dues money could be spent on a political cause.

Initiative backers say their goal is to take unions out of the political campaign game
The initiative says that an employer could fail to honor the request without any repercussions. "An employer shall not be required, by contract or otherwise, to honor a request for a political contribution compensation deduction, and shall incur no liability for refusing to do so."

Union leaders are nervous, not only about the language of the proposals, but about the overwhelming support that "paycheck protection" appears to enjoy across the country.

A California Field Poll conducted last November found that 66 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans support the initiative. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in October asked respondents, "Should labor unions need to get permission from individual union members to use dues for political purposes?" Eighty-two percent of the respondents said "yes."

If these initiatives and bills pass, unions representatives say that the labor movement could be brought to its knees, essentially crippled as a political force. They say unions can't expect their members to sign written statements authorizing them to spend money on political issues, especially if the members have to divulge their political beliefs directly to their bosses. In addition, business owners would be under no obligation to honor the requests.

Union leaders also balk at the red tape required to enact such a measure. "What they're trying to do is turn our working class into a silent majority, a majority with absolutely no political voice whatsoever," says Charlie Cox, president of United Auto Workers Local 2162 in Reno. "Under these initiatives, a union couldn't educate their people on political issues, on health care reform, Social Security or anything. They would be silenced."

But Republican activists such as Harris don't believe unions should be in the business of politics anyway. There are many people who don't agree with Social Security, don't support minimum wage laws and don't back health care reform. Why should their union dues go to programs that "inform" members about these political issues or to candidates who back the same causes?

"Union leadership is there for one reason only, and that's to negotiate contracts," Harris says. "It's immoral to tell people they have to quit their union [if they don't agree with the politics of the leadership]."

In California, initiative backers say their goal is to take unions out of the political campaign game.

"If they [believe] that we want to stop union money going to political campaigns, they're correct," says Christy Kashigean, spokeswoman for the California campaign.

If laws passed nationally, unions say they would be crippled from even complaining if big business spent money to eradicate worker protection
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, he acknowledged that without the support of organized labor, it probably would never have passed.

If "paycheck protection" had been the law of the land 100 years ago, union leaders say minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, compensation for injuries on the job and even Social Security probably would never have passed Congress.

The above observations cannot be overstated, say union leaders.

The truth is, unions have been pushing a liberal political agenda for hundreds of years and, to labor leaders, the idea of unions keeping their hands out of politics is an oxymoron. Unions are politics; they are voluntary organizations that any person can choose to join or not join. For over a century, their democratically elected leaders have used union dues to promote political causes.

Union activists still can't forget an incident in 1914 in which coal miners at John D. Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation went on strike and were evicted from their company-owned homes. The workers moved into a cluster of tents and on Easter Night, company-hired gunmen set the tents on fire and machine-gunned workers as they ran for their lives. Thirteen children were among the dead. The incident sparked worldwide sympathy for unions.

Afterward, Rockefeller made public appearances where he handed out shiny dimes to poor children in an attempt to live the incident down. But many union members still haven't forgotten, even though it was far from the only time strikers have been killed.

"Sick leave, overtime pay, compensation for injuries on the job," says labor activist Andrew Barbano. "Workers were killed so that you could get to the point where governments would listen."

You can't take the politics out of labor without destroying labor, says a spokesperson for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

"Some of these initiatives would prevent us from speaking out to our members about the importance of issues like better health care, a higher minimum wage and a whole host of issues," says Naomi Walker, media outreach specialist for the AFL-CIO in Washington D.C. "No other membership organization or corporation has been required to abide by the restrictions these bills would impose on unions."

Indeed, the very existence of unions is protected by the Wagner Act, passed in 1935. If "paycheck protection" passes nationally, unions say they would be crippled from even complaining if big business started spending money to eradicate this law.

Critic say part of California bill was "put that in is so they could demagogue it on TV spots"
None of the backers of paycheck protection interviewed supported restrictions on campaign spending by corporations, even though corporations spent 11 times what unions did in the 1996 election.

The spokesperson for the California campaign (which is known there as the "campaign reform initiative") says that corporations shouldn't be compared to unions."Shareholders buy into a company knowing that corporations participate in the political process," Kashigean says. "Shareholders are voluntary."

As a result, corporations deserve free reign to donate liberally to political campaigns, she says while unions should be required first to get permission from their individual members.

Unions, however, are voluntary organizations, although in some professions, non-union employees sometimes must agree to pay dues to a union if that company has signed what's known as a "union security clause." Such clauses are are already illegal in the state of Nevada.

But in California, teachers have to pay union dues even if they don't join that state's teachers union. This is what makes unions different from corporations, Kashigean argues. Laws that are supposed to protect non-union members from having dues spent on politics they don't agree with, aren't being enforced by the Clinton administration, she says.

"We come from the argument that it is the workers' money, and they should be able to say where it goes," says Kashigean. "This way you can at least bring fairness into campaign spending. Just because corporations outspend unions doesn't mean unions should be able to take members' money without their permission."

The California campaign also contains something that isn't included in the Nevada one: It bans political contributions to candidates by foreign corporations.

However, foreigners are already banned from making such contributions by both state and federal law, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.

"The reason they put that in is so they could demagogue it on TV spots," says labor activist Barbano. "It's basically in there as an advertising tool."

The largest donation to the California initiative thus far comes from an Indian resident who's a big supporter of Newt Gingrich and chairman of one of the biggest insurance companies in America
If "paycheck protection" really does serve the interests of ordinary workers, it may be one of the first times in human history that such an initiative has been bankrolled by the very rich.

The largest donation to the California initiative thus far has come from J. Patrick Rooney, a big supporter of Newt Gingrich and the chairman of Golden Rule Insurance, one of the biggest insurance companies in America. Rooney wrote the California campaign a check for $49,000 before it had even gained enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Rooney is a resident of Indianapolis.

"The initiative is about fairness," the 70-year-old Rooney told the Sacramento Bee. "No union should be able to take a worker's money for political purposes without the worker's consent. ... That's a moral position that fits with everything else I've done."

Rooney frequently spars with insurance regulators and state legislatures who don't like his insurance company's alleged "cherry picking" of insurance customers. "I've been known to thumb my nose at regulators and take them to court," Rooney told the Bee. "And I've won more often than not."

But in a half-dozen states, fights with regulators prompted Rooney to stop writing policies altogether. "No other health insurer can cherry pick its way to unusually high profits as well as Golden Rule Insurance Co.," a 1994 Wall Street Journal article noted. In 1990, Consumer Reports charged that Golden Rule's underwriting policies were the most extreme in the business, and that "the company has a history of large rate increases and canceled policies."

Reports like these prompted the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to hold hearings on Golden Rule in the early 1990s. But when Republicans took over Congress in 1994, the hearings suddenly stopped.

Many observers believe that Rooney's coziness with the Republican Party, and especially House Speaker Newt Gingrich, helped kill the hearings about his company.

Rooney, his family and top executives of his company donated more than $1 million to the GOP and its candidates in 1993-94. Gingrich, meanwhile, has plugged Golden Rule in his college course (which is also partly funded by Golden Rule).

House Speaker Gingrich is also a strong supporter of "Paycheck Protection." House Republicans have already tried to pass their own "Paycheck Protection" bill, but failed to muster the necessary votes.

Ralph Nader's organization Public Citizen believes there may be constitutional problems with the initiatives
When former President George Bush became outraged with statements the National Rifle Association had made, he left the organization. He didn't demand to have his dues decreased, say union leaders, who add that people quit or refuse to join unions all the time because they don't agree with the organizations' politics.

Ironically, it's laws that allow workers to quit and avoid paying union dues -- laws that unions bitterly fought against -- that now could be the best defense against "paycheck protection."

It is true that in the past workers were often forced to pay union dues whether or not they wanted to be in a union. Many states are now "right-to-work" states, which means no one can be fired for not paying union dues.

Another past defeat for unions -- a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Communications Workers of America v. Beck -- could also now help unions in their fight against "paycheck protection."

In Beck, the Supreme Court found that no one could be forced by a union or an employer to contribute money to a political cause they didn't agree with.

In the case, an AT&T employee named Harry Beck challenged the Communications Workers of America's use of agency fees for political activities and lobbying. At AT&T, the company had signed a "union security clause," forcing every employee to pay union dues, whether or not they were members. These clauses are permitted by the National Labor Relations Act, on the theory that collective bargaining activities by a union benefit even non-members in a company.

Beck wasn't a member of the union, but his dues still went to pay for political causes he despised. The Supreme Court decided in Beck's favor, ruling that unions could take dues from nonmembers, but they were not allowed to use them for any purpose other than collective bargaining. Non-members can ask for a deduction in their dues.

In short, workers don't need a Paycheck Protection Act to prevent dues from going to political causes. They already can demand a deduction.

But Harris says unions aren't informing their members about their rights under Beck. "The president of the United States when he took office signed an executive order delaying enforcement of Beck," Harris charges. "Unions are supposed to post notices on walls explaining union members' rights, but they've never done that."

Harris also doesn't believe Beck goes far enough. Beck only applies to non-members -- workers in union shops who are forced to pay union dues, but have decided not to join the union.

A Republican would still have to quit a union if he didn't want some of his dues money going to Democratic candidates.

"What about the guys who don't want to quit their union?" Harris asks. "What about the guys who love their unions? I know a ton of union guys that are my friends who love their union, have no intention to leave the union but are going to spend every ounce of energy they have to say, 'Don't spend my money on political issues I don't agree with.'"

Ralph Nader's organization Public Citizen believes there may be constitutional problems with "paycheck protection." Americans have a right to freely associate in voluntary organizations which promote political ideas. Allowing a minority to interfere with the wishes and political beliefs of a majority in a voluntary organization would interfere with the freedom of citizens to associate.

An initiative generally cannot be challenged as unconstitutional until it has become law. Right now, labor unions are working feverishly to ensure that "paycheck protection" never becomes law.

"Nevada unions have raised $100,000 to fight this," says local labor activist Barbano. "That's money that could have been spent on candidates."

And that, many critics believe, may be the real motive behind the initiative.

This article first appeared in Reno News & Review

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Albion Monitor March 3, 1998 (

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