Reformers deride Republican plan as attempt to derail campaign-finance debate

Friday, April 14, 2000

Although her group has defended union dissidents many times in its 30-year history, Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, says Republicans are using a red herring in their arguments against campaign-finance reform when they say union dues infringe upon union members’ First Amendment rights.

GOP leaders say many union workers are compelled to fund through their dues political speech they don’t support. And if Congress should ban soft money, they say, it should also curb the use of union dues for partisan union political campaigns.

“The argument is a complete fallacy that simply doesn’t stand up to the facts,” Claybrook said. “Hyping the power of the political opposition may be a good fund-raising tactic, but it doesn’t make for good public policy.”

Claybrook was among several witnesses during an April 12 hearing before the Senate Rules Committee who criticized proposals that aim to stop unions from spending any of their members’ dues on political campaigns and activities without individual authorization. They say such “paycheck protection” proposals are merely poison pills designed to kill campaign-finance reform.

The hearing was among several the Rules Committee is holding on campaign-finance issues.

Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, said reform efforts attempt to restrict campaign speech on one end by banning soft money and compelling speech on the other by allowing unions to force their members to subsidize a political view.

“The notion that individuals should have their free-speech rights curtailed while at the same time be forced to support political beliefs which they abhor is not new,” Boehm said. “It is the hallmark of virtually every dictatorship and police state that has ever existed.”

Claybrook described such a characterization as “misleading.”

“The law is clear that no worker in the United States can be required to pay for any union expenses other than those associated with collective bargaining, grievance adjustment and contract administration,” she said. “Workers are free to join or not join unions.”

Union leaders also say such measures are redundant, since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1988 in Communications Workers of America v. Beck that union workers may claim partial refunds.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that’s not what is happening in the business world. Twenty-nine states, he said, allow unionized job sites to require workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if the workers choose not to join the union.

He said that objectors within unions often have to first pay all of their dues and then seek ways to get refunds. He added that it often takes litigation and large legal bills for objectors to get their refunds.

“Frankly, the process is so burdensome that it amounts to little more than punishment for people simply trying to protect their civil rights,” McConnell said.

He added that he soon would introduce a bill called the Worker Information and Empowerment Act that would make it easier for union workers to determine if they want their dues to continue paying for activities unrelated to collective bargaining or get a partial refund.

It’s not the first time Republicans have touted a paycheck-protection plan. In 1998, they actively supported paycheck-protection referenda in four states — California, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado — but failed to garner enough support.

During the last congressional session, Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., introduced a bill that would require labor unions to obtain annual written authorization from their members before using any dues for political activity. It failed overwhelmingly.

Reformers say bills like Goodling’s are merely attempts to stymie campaign-reform efforts. They say such bills are not about First Amendment association rights or compelled speech but are a Republican effort to cut into the political activity of unions, which traditionally support Democratic candidates.

Claybrook said Republicans would maintain an overwhelming fund-raising advantage over Democrats even if Congress passed a soft-money ban without passing a paycheck-protection provision. She noted that in 1998, the Republican Party outraised its Democratic counterparts by $734 million to $533 million.