Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

The Unions’ Cross To Bear?

Labor unions’ political activity is best framed as a byproduct of collective bargaining. Without the exclusivity of a collective bargaining unit, unions could not compel “opt-in” status of their members.  With the help of payroll deductions, “giving” by their membership is easy.

Proposition 32, which will appear on the ballot in California, would stop the practice of automatic payroll deduction and institute paycheck protection, giving public sector union members the chance to make their own decision on who to support. Unions, who have invested heavily (almost $69 million raised so far) in defeating the proposition, claim that this puts unions at a disadvantage, as these deductions are the primary way that unions fund their political spending.

Joe Mathews, writing at the NBC San Diego “Prop Zero” blog, goes a step further. Mathews proposes that if we are concerned about the political power of unions, we should ensure public employee unions are relieved of their “responsibility” to stand up for others:

These unions end up doing far more than representing their members. They are one of the leading arsenals of people and money for the Democratic Party and progressive causes. Just look at California politics and you’ll see public employees and their unions have stepped in again and again to defend people who otherwise don’t have resources or power in the political process.

Mathews laments that no clear entity to could take over the role public employee unions play in advancing left-leaning causes. He believes that the state should help encourage new institutions to replace the political function of labor unions. Specifically, he’d like to see “[s]tronger local political parties, public processes for deliberation and engagement, and a stronger public media…”

But Mathews fails to understand the first problem of union political power: it’s artificial. Much like his own proposal, it is contrived. For union members in many states, including California, “opt-out” is the default—they contribute to the unions’ political spending with a portion of their dues unless they specifically ask for a refund. The refund process is difficult for members to navigate, so many just chalk it up as the cost of doing business.

The political power that unions possess is largely thanks to union’s monopoly on employees and their ability to compel participation. If union members thought that that their union’s political operation was worth the money, then the union’s leaders would have nothing to be afraid of.  Members could just as easily opt-in to dues, or even write a check to a union’s political action committee (PAC) which is also permitted to donate directly to candidates.

Evidence from other states shows that the “opt-out” default creates a false sense of support for the unions’ political spending. Similar paycheck protection laws in other states resulted in massive reductions in political dues paid to the union.

But Mathews says that the “responsibility” to represent others has fallen to the labor unions so that they ought not be limited to just helping their members (you know, the people who are forced to pay for the unions’ activity). Yet Mathews has no explanation as to how “[s]tronger local political parties, public processes for deliberation and engagement, and a stronger public media” should be funded. Perhaps there could be a forced payment from the general public to support his endeavor? (Arguably, the way that “The Machine” works now leads to that result.)

Furthermore, it isn’t only the progressive policies that unions support with their political spending, as Mathews posits. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reminds us, unions are more interested in the laws that would affect their own interests:

In 2005, the Schwarzenegger administration’s Million Solar Roof initiative died in the Legislature because it didn’t mandate the use of union electricians for installation. In 2006, a proposal to let poor parents enroll their kids online in Medi-Cal or the Healthy Families program to take advantage of government-provided health care was killed because of concerns it could lead to fewer jobs in county welfare offices.

Prop 32 would give public sector union members the opportunity to decide for themselves if they need to be “represented” in Sacramento by a union or if their dues are better spent elsewhere. Progressive political power should not be built on the backs of California government employees.

Categories: Center for Union FactsPolitical MoneyTeachers Unions