Compulsory Union Dues and Republican Timidity

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Republicans almost lost their majority on Capitol Hill in the '96 elections and have since resembled Clark Kent more often than Superman. Their mild mannered Resist-and-Retreat routine is no expressway to smaller government and more freedom. They've forgotten what General Douglas MacArthur told them at their 1952 National Convention: "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it."

Big Labor gets most of the credit. It spent a fortune - estimated at $300 million to $500 million by labor experts - to win back the Congress in 1996. It failed at the polls, but succeeded in intimidating the Republicans.

In 1996 only 10.2% of the private-sector wage-and-salary workforce was unionized and the percentage has been declining since 1953. Even in manufacturing, 83% of American workers are nonunion. The reason? Most workers do not want union representation. Even AFL-CIO polls show that only one out of three workers would vote for union representation in a secret ballot election.

But weakness in the workplace has not translated into weakness in Washington. Union bosses control more than one of every three campaign dollars, giving them enormous political clout. Asked last November if he plans the same kind of campaign in the 1998 congressional elections, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said, "You're damn right," and as to whether the AFL-CIO would spend as much in 1998, "You'll have to watch, it might even be more."

The party of government depends on the unions for its lifeblood. Deny the unions power to collect compulsory dues or the ability to spend the proceeds for political purposes, and the Democratic party would shrivel. On June 25 a Senate committee will hold a hearing on Sen. Don Nickles' "Paycheck Protection Act," which would require unions to obtain written permission before spending a worker's compulsory fees or dues for political purposes. Similar hearings on the House side will be held in July.

The intent of Senator Nickles' campaign reform bill is admirable: to insure that no worker has wages diverted to political causes that he or she does not support. Unions collect more than 10% of their money from 1.9 million reluctant non-members. Further, many members, probably four out of 10, vote Republican or object to union efforts on behalf of liberal candidates.

But the Nickles and similar bills only hack at the branches rather than going to the root of the problem. The Supreme Court held in the Beck decision in 1988 that workers are entitled to a rebate of any part of dues involuntarily used for political purposes, but the ruling goes unenforced by the Clinton administration. The real problem is forced union dues themselves. No worker should be subjected to such involuntary association and to levies on their wages. Unions, after all, are not governments.

The unions point out that federal law requires a bargaining representative to represent fairly all workers in a bargaining unit, whether an employee wants representation or not. Hence, they say, to offset this service "burden" they must have a union security agreement in order to deduct 1% to 2% of wages from all those represented, insuring that all pay a "fair share" of union costs and don't "free ride" on union efforts.

The answer to this flummery? Repeal exclusive representation in the National Labor Relations Act. Then a private-sector union would represent only its voluntary members and only they would receive union benefits. Presto! Forced unionism disappears and the forced diversion of wages into politics with it.

Politically impossible? Too sweeping? Today, yes. But New Zealand did it back in 1991, managing to repeal the privileged position of unions, which now have completely voluntary membership - albeit half the old amount. With a Democrat in the White House until January 2001, an act to repeal exclusive representation or any second-best solution like right-to-work and right-to-know (Beck) bills face vetoes with no chance of an override unless the Republicans win by a landslide in 1998. The best the Republicans can do in the interim is to hold hearings, publicize as much as possible, bring legislation to a floor vote in both houses, send it to the White House, and make a campaign issue of it.

We are a nation dedicated to the idea of freedom. As long as unions collect compulsory dues, it will rankle a lot of Americans, all the more so when fewer and fewer believe that unions are necessary to obtain justice at work. What better issue could there be to campaign on than compulsory unionism?