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Defunding Leftist Unions By: Carl F. Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 19, 2005

California voters this November 8 will be faced with no fewer than seven ballot initiatives. It may seem like a bewildering menu. But one measure in particular has caught the attention of those familiar with organized labor’s power to hold workers financial hostage to political activism.

The measure is Proposition 75. Supporters have dubbed it the Paycheck Protection Act; opponents, in retort, term it the Paycheck Deception Act. The measure would amend state statutes by barring public-employees’ unions in California from spending a member’s dues on political activities without that employee’s written consent. Rather than having to calculate the portion of dues going for objectionable political purposes and asking for a refund afterward – as is currently the case – a public-sector worker, with Proposition 75 in force, would have the opportunity to decide whether or not to contribute toward such activities prior to fund disbursement. As every consumer knows, it’s easier to refrain from buying than it is to ask for a refund.


Public-sector unions repeatedly have placed high demands on California state and local government service delivery, contributing to the current estimated $30 billion budget deficit. Moreover, union political funds inevitably go toward leftist causes. In 1996, for example, the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer Project led an effort to oppose a state initiative, Proposition 209, to ban race-based Affirmative Action in California state and local programs (the measure passed 54 percent-46 percent).


The Sacramento-based National Tax Limitation Committee, the official sponsor of Proposition 75, explains what’s at stake. “It is especially unfair to the many conservative union members, who have their paychecks tapped involuntarily to support the most liberal politicians in California,” notes NTLC President Lewis K. Uhler. The measure enjoys statewide support. A recent poll by the Pleasanton, CA-based Charlton Research Co. showed the measure leading by a 49 percent-43 percent margin.


Uhler and non-leftist union members have a strong legal and moral argument. For nearly three decades, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently has decided that unions may not compel members to pay dues as a precondition for holding a job. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Court ruled on behalf of several hundred city school teachers that using dues money contributed by dissenters beyond the cost of collective bargaining violated workers’ First Amendment rights. In Ellis v. Railway Clerks (1984), all nine justices held that a union “cannot be allowed to commit dissenters’ funds to improper uses – even temporarily.”  Most decisively of all, in Communications Workers of America v. Beck (1988), the Court ruled that all workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act, including those in the private sector, have the right to withhold dues from a union for costs unrelated to collective bargaining.


California union bosses – like those elsewhere in the nation – know that many workers, if given the choice, would not join. A nationwide Zogby poll conducted among more than 800 workers this past June revealed that only 35 percent of non-union workers would consider voting to unionize their workplace; 56 percent, by contrast, would not consider it.


Passage of a paycheck protection mechanism would enable employees to put such a preference into action. Several states thus far have created paycheck protection laws, and two – Washington and Utah – have implemented them. A survey of Utah’s law (signed by then-Governor Mike Leavitt in 2001) indicated that the percentage of teachers contributing to their union’s political action committee fell from 68 percent to 6.8 percent – a ninety percent drop. Understandably, California union officials and their allies don’t want to see that kind of trend in their own state. 


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for months had hinted he would support Proposition 75. This September, at the state Republican convention in Anaheim, he offered a formal endorsement. “Public employees should not be forced to contribute to causes, candidates, and controversial issues that they don’t believe in,” he remarked. “Big government union leaders should not use their members’ money as a personal kitty to fund political campaigns and political advertising.”


Public-sector union officials are predictably demagoguing the issue, framing it in class warfare rhetoric. Arnold is on the side of the rich – and the “right-wingers” who protect them. The union-supported Alliance for a Better California, with pseudo-populist brio, opined, “Proposition 75 was designed and orchestrated by Governor Schwarzenegger’s supporters including right-wing extremists and his corporate campaign contributors who want to cut funding for education, health, and safety.” Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters, calls Proposition 75 “this sneaky initiative.” Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, went much further. “Once he [Schwarzenegger] has gagged us by taking away our democratic right to respond to his maneuvers, he will move in for the kill by attempting to eliminate death and disability benefits for police officers, firefighters, and their survivors.”  


Teachers unions especially have it in for Schwarzenegger. On May 25, United Teachers Los Angeles held a “Protest Arnold” rally, carrying placards featuring cheerful messages such as “True Lies = Broken Promises”; “$10,000 Dinners Would Buy a Lot of School Supplies”; and “We Earned Our Pensions in ‘A’ Classrooms, Not ‘B’ Movies.” Boy, they really know how to hurt a guy. 


The California Teachers Association (CTA), the state affiliate of the National Education Association, is doing more than demonstrating. Recently, the 335,000-member association imposed a $60-per member annual special assessment on its rank-and-file. Union officials claim the money will be routed toward debt retirement. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation believes this is a ruse; that the CTA in fact is diverting the money, illegally, to defeat Proposition 75 and other measures. The foundation is representing teachers and college professors in a class-action suit to block dues from being used for ballot advocacy. The suit received a setback on October 5, however, when a U.S. District Court declined to issue a temporary restraining order that would have frozen funds originating from dissenting employees.    


Never underestimate the unions. They know that aggressive campaigning, backed by a large pot of funds, can sway borderline voters into their camp – as in the case of Proposition 226. That particular measure, included on the June 1998 primary ballot, would have barred all private- and public-sector unions from steering dues toward political purposes that lie contrary to members’ wishes. Organized labor launched a take-no-prisoners campaign, spending a combined nearly $20 million to defeat it. Though fraught with misleading information, the campaign proved successful; Proposition 226 lost by a 54-46 margin.  


Proposition 75 is, in fact, a modest measure, addressing only where union dues go once they’re collected. But what if a worker doesn’t want to join particular union – or any union? He or she ought to have the right to exercise that choice without having to worry about being terminated by an employer beholden to a “union security agreement.” Put another way: If a bank robber gives a portion of the proceeds from a heist to my preferred political causes, he’s still a thief.

The main focus therefore should be on origins, not destinations. Do union members join because they want to, or do they join because they have to?  One hopes California eventually will one day give workers that choice, prohibiting unions from conditioning a worker’s continued employment upon payment of dues or (commonly set almost as high) agency fees. The Congress could also establish this right preemptively in all 50 states. Giving power to employees over whether they join a union or not is the ultimate paycheck protection campaign.

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Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church, Va.-based nonprofit organization that promotes ethics and accountability in American life. He has a Ph.D. in urban planning and policy development, and has written widely on immigration, labor, housing, welfare and other domestic policy issues.

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