Big Labor's Tyranny of the Minority: Forced Union Dues in Politics

Edith Hakola and W. James Young*

The AFL-CIO has received much attention for its $35 million campaign to bring a Democratic majority back to Congress. Federal Election Commission reports show union political action committees spent $95 million on politics in 1992. However, labor experts estimate that three to five times as much -- $300-$500 million in soft-money largesse -- is doled out directly from union dues coffers, collected as compulsory dues from individuals nationwide.

For years, the increased radicalism of Big Labor officials has been politically divorcing AFL-CIO and NEA bosses from their membership. The 40% of union members who voted for the Republican candidates in 1994 saw nearly 100% of union political spending go to Democratic candidates. The millions of dollars provided by these compulsory fee-paying employees is probably the single largest element of unreported political spending -- garnered through the federal privilege granted to labor unions to collect forced dues from individual employees as a condition of employment.

Private-sector employees seeking to prevent their money from going to "opinions which they disbelieve," in Thomas Jefferson's words, must rely on the victory won in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 by attorneys provided by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, in Communications Workers of America v. Beck.

Beck holds that the federal monopoly-bargaining license granted to private-sector unions cannot be used to coerce funding for union political and ideological activities. Quoting Ellis v. Railway Clerks (1984), the Beck Court held that the National Labor Relations Act "authorizes the exaction of only those fees and dues necessary to `performing the duties of an exclusive representative of the employees in dealing with the employer on labor-management issues.'"

However, the White House and the National Labor Relations Board have moved glacially and in the wrong direction to "enforce" Beck. It wasn't until April 1992 that steps finally were taken to implement Beck by President Bush's Executive Order requiring that all federal contractors post notices informing employees of their Beck rights.

President Clinton rescinded the Bush Executive Order. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in 1993 killed the Department of Labor rule-making project, initiated by President Bush. The rules would have required labor unions to report LM-2/LM-3 financial disclosure information on a functional basis (i.e., collective bargaining, politics, lobbying, etc.) instead of on the existing nondescript basis (i.e., salaries, wages, etc.) that provides no useful information to employees subject to compulsory union fee extractions. The rule-making project would have required unions to report what they spend on activities chargeable to Beck objectors (collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment,) and what union officials spend on non-chargeable activities.

The first of the few cases allowed by the Bush-appointed General Counsel to reach the Board, California Saw and Knife Works, was decided by a Board with a Clinton-appointed majority. After a delay of more than ten years after the first charge had been filed, the Board's first Beck decision, rather than treat with appropriate care the First Amendment rights of employees regarding this issue of coerced political speech, granted only the most grudging procedural guarantees to employees.

For example, the Board held that notice of individual employee rights could be placed inside an internal union magazine filled with political propaganda with no mention of the notice on the cover. The NLRB also held that union members in patronage positions can provide an adequate accounting of union expenditures for political and non-political activities, even though they are neither "accountants" nor "independents".

The NLRB took another move in the wrong direction on Beck this year. NLRB General Counsel Feinstein charged a Pennsylvania company -- whose employees are represented by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's own Service Employees International Union -- with violating the law because the company attempted to inform its employees of their Beck rights.

Many years of apathy and over three years of active hostility have forced employees into expensive litigation to vindicate their rights. And they are important rights. Forcing an employee to finance a union's political agenda infringes, as the Court put it in Ellis, on the "employee's freedom to associate for the advancement of ideas, or to refrain from doing so, as he sees fit."

The average union member in the United States pays between $400-$500 annually in dues, money he could be using to support his own candidates and causes. In Beck, the Communication Workers union could prove only that 21% of its budget was spent on collective bargaining. Presumably, the rest went to political, ideological and other non-collective-bargaining activities.

The Beck case established a clear legal ruling that employees are being seriously wronged by union officials' use of compulsory dues to elect candidates and promote causes the employees oppose. The challenge now is to develop more effective enforcement of employees' Beck rights.

*Edith Hakola is the General Counsel and W. James Young is a staff attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc.


2001 The Federalist Society