Working Capital

Workers should have control over their own money.

This article originally appeared in the National Review on March 27, 2001 at

By Robert Hunter, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board under President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Hunter is now director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Although the paycheck-protection amendment to the McCain-Feingold "campaign-finance reform" bill died ignominiously on Senate floor, the battle for union workers' right to control their dues dollars is still very much a live issue.

If the goal is to eliminate abuses in the political process, then it's essential that Congress addresses the vast and corrupt--yet largely hidden--system of political financing employed by organized labor. Union officials routinely take dues money from both members and nonmembers at unionized work sites. They take money that is supposed to be spent on legitimate union business such as collective bargaining, and divert it to a wide range of political activities.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 landmark decision, Communications Workers of America v. Beck declared that workers are entitled to know what portion of their money goes for political and other non-bargaining activities and, if they object, to get that money refunded. No more than 21 percent of the dues and fees required of plaintiff Harry Beck were "expended on collective bargaining matters." Almost 80 cents of every dollar Beck was forced to pay to his union, the Communication Workers of America, was used for political, partisan, or social causes and was therefore refundable.

In another U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had its origins in Michigan, the Court found in favor of James Lehnert, a professor at Ferris State University and a member of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest union of cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and teachers. The MEA maintained that only 20 percent of Lehnert's union payments went to its political and non-bargaining efforts, but as in the Beck case, the Court found that the figure was closer to 90 percent.

Unfortunately, unions won't voluntarily notify their members of these rulings or of their rights, and most politicians have been afraid to follow up the Supreme Court's rulings by actually enforcing them.

Every month, almost 9.5 million U.S. private-sector workers--over 660,000 of them in Michigan--pay their dues to labor unions. About 91 percent of those workers belong to a union; the remainder consists of dues-paying nonmembers who have exercised their right not to join, though they must still pay "agency fees" to a union. A large portion of those funds continues to be spent on union partisan politics without the consent of those workers who are forced to pay dues in order to work.

The highly touted McCain-Feingold bill purports to "reform" the campaign-financing system by enshrining Beck rights into the law, but it does so in a way that is not only inadequate, but also harmful to the interests of America's workers. Here's why:

  • The bill leaves out millions of workers who are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, including airline and railroad workers and state and local-government employees;

  • the bill denies workers access to the federal courts, which they enjoy now, and instead forces them to take complaints against their unions to the National Labor Relations Board, a body dominated by Clinton appointees who have shown hostility to workers' Beck rights;

  • the bill eliminates current union financial-disclosure requirements that allow workers to decide whether or not they wish to pursue a complaint; and

  • the bill would still allow unions to charge objecting employees for ideological, social, and other non-bargaining purposes (such as "image-building" campaigns) that the Beck decision forbids.

The Mackinac Center, which has long championed workers' Beck rights here in heavily unionized Michigan, recommends that Congress scrap the McCain-Feingold "Trojan Horse" Beck rights provision and instead codify the Beck decision as it was articulated by the Court. This includes a full and independent accounting of all non-bargaining related spending by unions and a removal of the numerous union roadblocks that currently frustrate workers' exercise of these Constitutional rights.

Union politics are not necessarily compatible with those of individual employees, who should have ultimate control over their own money. Any union that finds itself unable to persuade members to voluntarily provide funds for political participation should ask itself whether it is truly acting in the best interests of workers. And any bill that purports to be "campaign-finance reform" but doesn't enforce Beck rights leaves too much abuse in place to be worthy of the name.