Labor unions battle ‘paycheck protection’

Thursday, April 9, 1998

After weeks of staving off campaign finance reform in Congress, conservative forces have taken the offensive in nearly two dozen states to support bills and ballot initiatives requiring labor unions to get members' approval to use dues for political purposes.

Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said such measures—supporters call it “paycheck protection”—are now the prime campaign reform issues.

“There are only two entities that can take money out of your pocket against your will: the IRS and the AFL-CIO,” Nicholson said. “The states and federal government must ensure that no worker will be forced to donate to a candidate or cause against his will. Nothing is more important.”

But union leaders decry the move as a shot to First Amendment association rights and a vindictive GOP effort against unions' traditionally strong support for Democrats.

The issue promises to boil into one of the most heated political battles of the year. In California alone, where voters will decide June 2 on Proposition 226, a coalition of labor unions has pledged upwards to $10 million to combat the measure. Supporters plan to spend nearly as much.

Until recently, conservatives in Congress promoted paycheck protection to weaken efforts to impose stronger restrictions on campaign financing. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's threats to paste the proposal onto a bipartisan campaign reform bill effectively sank the measure last February.

A similar provision in the House curbed campaign finance efforts there last month, but it failed 246-166 when offered as a separate bill.

While Congress refuses to move on campaign finance reform, nearly every state legislature is considering one or more reform measures. Nearly two dozen have drafted paycheck protection legislation.

Meanwhile, the First Amendment looms on the constitutional horizon.

It was the Republicans who recently cited free-speech rights as they voted against restructuring the way the nation finances campaigns. Now the First Amendment arguments are coming from union leaders and Democrats who defend the political use of dues as an exercise of free-assembly rights.

Larry Gold, legal counsel for the AFL-CIO, said paycheck protection–or as he and other union leaders prefer to put it, “paycheck deception”–must be defeated because it's “an undemocratic effort to take unions out of much of the political process.”

“This thing really has nothing to do with protecting individual rights, because they are already protected,” Gold said. “This is a freedom-of-association issue here. What they are saying is that union members can't voluntarily decide things. I know of no public or private organization that is required to do this.”

Rights aside, union leaders say such legislation is redundant, since federal law already forbids the donation of union dues to political campaigns. They also cite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1988 case Communications Workers of America v. Beck, which said that union workers may claim partial refunds of dues not spent on collective bargaining.

“If workers aren't happy with what's not working, there's already a lot of opportunity to change it,” said Naomi Walker, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman. “They can vote the current leadership out. They can make sure they are speaking out in meetings.”

But conservatives say figures from the Federal Election Commission show union spending habits to be vastly disproportionate to union members' political preferences. According to the FEC, about 40 percent of union members say they voted Republican in the 1994 and 1996 elections. Reports also show that more than 90 percent of union election contributions went to non-Republican entities or causes.

“Obviously, there's a very big disconnect with members' views and the spending habits of their union bosses,” said Michael Kamburowski, director of special projects for Americans for Tax Reform.

And in spite of Beck, many union members haven't enjoyed their right to claim a dues refund because many union leaders refuse to return dues money not spent on collective bargaining, Kamburowski said.

“It's almost impossible to do,” he said. “There's a lot of harassment. Union bosses have made it very difficult for them to ask for their unspent dues back.”

Kamburowski said that all paycheck protection mandates is for union bosses to get written permission each year before spending money on campaigns.

“It doesn't limit unions' ability to spend or enter the political process,” he said. “It just requires them to ask.”

But Gold said the process is not that easy.

“Not only will political speech be chilled but the propositions would put incredible burdens on employers who have to make sure the deductions are accurate,” he said. “If an employer has any knowledge that any organization has made any political contributions, the employer can't do the payroll deduction.”

Four states — Idaho, Wyoming, Michigan and Washington — have some version of paycheck protection. But supporters and opponents agree that all eyes are focused on California.

As the June 2 vote nears, polls show paycheck protection to be especially popular there, even among union members. Even the most conservative polls show the measure has at least a 61 percent approval rating. Some polls show support in the high 70s.

But all agree that as the two sides start putting money into their respective campaigns, the polls should change significantly.

Grover Norquist, director of Americans for Tax Reform, is optimistic and hopes to have the issue in every state soon. “If we win in California, we'll win all the others,” he said.