Union members in Massachusetts support Senator Scott Brown (R). So it is perhaps surprising to see Massachusetts unions announcing their plans to target him for defeat. Or perhaps not.
Union bosses, not union members, decide how to spend union dues. Union bosses oppose Brown’s efforts to cut government spending. So they are going to go after him—whether or not their members want their dues spent that way.
This is a national problem. Union members pay 1–2 percent of their salaries in annual dues but have little say over how that money gets spent. Often it gets spent on political campaigning. Three of the top five outside spenders in the midterm elections were unions. Despite the fact that many union members are conservative, almost all of this money goes to elect liberals.
Many union members object to this. Polling shows that 60 percent of union members oppose having their dues spent so heavily on politics. Two-thirds of union members believe that unions should have to get their members’ permission to spend their dues on politics.
The Supreme Court has ruled that unions cannot constitutionally force workers to financially support candidates they oppose. However, unions erect bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent workers from exercising this right. They implement obstacles that make it difficult for workers to formally request a refund of their dues—such as accepting such requests only 30 days out of the year. Often unions refuse to honor those requests unless workers file charges with the National Labor Relations Board. In practice, union members have little control over how their money gets spent.
In recent years Utah and Idaho, among other states, have passed “paycheck protection” laws to fix this problem. Instead of requiring workers to navigate a bureaucratic minefield to opt out, these laws require unions to get their members’ permission before spending their money on politics.
These laws show how little union leaders reflect their members’ priorities. Union political spending drops 40 to 50 percent once states pass paycheck protection laws. This shows that, if given the choice, many union members would rather keep their money than give it to politicians.
More states are giving workers this choice. Just today the Florida State House of Representatives voted for a paycheck protection bill. The Kansas House recently passed a paycheck protection law, and the Kansas Senate will vote on it next year. Now America’s second-largest state may follow suit. Texas state Representative Tan Parker recently introduced paycheck protection legislation.
Parker’s bill would go a long way toward giving Texas union members more control over their money. The bill:
- Requires unions in Texas to set up a segregated fund for political spending. Any direct or indirect union political spending would have to come from this fund, not general union finances.
- Gives union members the choice of whether or not to contribute to the union political fund.
- Protects union members from retaliation if they decide not to make political donations.
- Prevents the government from using its payroll system to collect payments for the political fund.
- Increases transparency and accountability by requiring unions to show their members how they spend their money. (Many government unions do not have to do this.)
The proposal isn’t perfect. Unions have responded to some paycheck protection laws by essentially laundering their political spending. After Washington State voters passed a paycheck protection law in 1992, the Washington teachers union started sending members’ mandatory dues to the Community Outreach Program (COP), from which teachers did not have the choice of opting out. The COP then spent millions of dollars of teachers’ dues on political causes, effectively sidestepping the law. Stronger language defining “indirect spending” could prevent unions from exploiting such loopholes.
Nonetheless, this legislation would be a great step forward to empower rank-and-file union members. More states should follow suit. Paycheck protection laws let union members choose if and how much to give to politicians. Individual union members, not union bosses, would control their own money. In America, that is how it ought to be.