Of Bush and Beck

The following article originally appeared on National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-hunter031402.shtml) March 14, 2002.

For all the hysterical talk about ending the corrupting influence of "special-interest money" on politics, precious little has been said about a particular brand of filthy lucre that has long deformed public debate in America.  We speak, of course, of the hundreds of millions of dollars in compulsory dues Big Labor spends every election cycle to advance its pet causes and candidates at the expense of ordinary workers' paychecks.

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At last, however, it looks as though George W. Bush is ready to do something to stem this tide of dirty money.  And this "something," unlike the campaign-finance legislation that seems destined to receive his signature, is not only compatible with the First Amendment—it actually expands free speech.  Here's the rundown. 

In a recent address at an American Bar Association conference in Puerto Rico, National Labor Relations Board Chairman Peter Hurtgen reportedly announced that President Bush is not likely to nominate him or two other current members, Michael Bartlett and William Cowen, for permanent terms.  All three are serving as recess appointees.  The term of the fourth member, holdover Clinton Democrat Wilma Liebman, expires on Dec. 16.

If Hurtgen is right, Bush will have an excellent opportunity in the coming months to remake the NLRB and in so doing revive the stalled drive to enforce the Supreme Court's 1988 ruling in Beck v. Communications Workers of America, the decision that affirmed workers' right to opt out of financially supporting union politicking.

NLRB enforcement of Beck has been lax, to say the least.  Board members have been slow to act, making excuses to quietly whittle away worker protections for seven years before finally issuing their first Beck-related ruling.  The NLRB also has been less than helpful in informing workers about their legal prerogatives, letting unions bury employee Beck notices in the fine print of their newsletters or allow workers to exercise their rights only during short union-imposed "window periods."  As a result, according to a 1997 McLaughlin poll, 67 percent of union workers are not even aware of their Beck rights.

A reconstituted NLRB could balance the scale now weighted heavily against workers' Beck rights—and even bolster legal remedies to unions' repeated and flagrant violations of Beck.  For example, the new board could require unions to obtain annual permission from objecting workers before spending those workers' dues on non-workplace-related activities including political causes.  This requirement—in essence a form of paycheck protection—would relieve workers of the intimidating task of confronting union officials to get back their already misspent dues, a task that can expose them to union reprisals.

De facto paycheck protection enacted by the NLRB would be an especially welcome development since Bush's demand for a paycheck protection provision in any campaign finance legislation has fallen on deaf congressional ears.

For workers, the NLRB cavalry can't arrive too soon.  Big Labor is gearing up to raid their wallets again to finance its 2002 campaigns.  Annual payments extracted from AFL-CIO-affiliated unions are likely to increase by four cents per month per dues-paying member to subsidize the unions' election mobilization effort.  A four-cent increase in the last six months of 2002 would fatten the AFL-CIO's war chest by $3.5 million for this year, and in each succeeding year it would generate $7 million. 

At a time when the economic downturn has taken a heavy toll on union membership—projected to decline by some 400,000 members this year—you would think that labor leaders could find better uses for their members' money, such as helping pay living expenses or find new jobs for displaced workers.

The stakes are high.  Union officials are poised to spend several hundred million dollars in the 2002 elections, nearly all of it calculated to aid Democrats.  And most of this money will be in the form of issue advocacy and "soft-money" contributions that, according to the campaign finance "reform" diehards, is the scourge of politics.

It's time to strike a bold blow for the rights of union workers who have been shamelessly exploited to advance Big Labor's political agenda for too long.  President Bush may not have gotten what he wanted in the campaign-finance package making its way to his desk, but he has a golden opportunity to appoint Beck-friendly NLRB members who will help shut down a major source of special-interest money by upholding the law of the land—a law that still protects the freedoms of speech and political association.

"It's time to strike a bold blow for the rights of union workers who have been shamelessly exploited to advance Big Labor's political agenda for too long."