Big Labor Taking a Beating

Published July 10, 2005

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They call it a perfect storm—a confluence of events creating a crisis of major proportions—and organized labor may have one on its hands.

Leaders within the AFL-CIO (search) are currently brawling over how to reverse organized labor’s declining political clout. After spending a reported $45 million on a failed attempt to oust President Bush in 2004, old-guard federation president John Sweeney is up for re-election in July. He and other AFL-CIO executive officers have issued a proposal to boost political spending in order to reclaim the White House and Congress.

Meanwhile, upstart reformers within organized labor are advocating for a renewed focus on organizing workers as a necessary precursor to political power. Five major unions (Labors, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here, and Service Employees International Union) are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO by forming their own coalition focused on organizing.

There is good reason for labor’s concern: union membership is in a 50-year tailspin. In 1952, 36 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today, that figure is less than 8 percent. Unions are failing to organize those entering the workforce, which is perhaps the most important age group for it’s future survival. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4.7 percent of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 belonged to a union in 2004, down from 5.2 percent in 2002.

Unions are so desperate for members they are attempting to organize unique sectors of the workforce such as babysitters and Ivy League student teaching assistants. As a sign of labor’s shrinking power, the AFL-CIO is tightening its belt, laying off over 160 employees (about 40 percent of its staff) in May.

And then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a special election in California this November.

Did you feel a drop of rain? It’s about to pour.

Lew Uhler of the Coalition for Employee Rights may become the common enemy against which labor leaders can rally. He is sponsoring an initiative on California’s ballot that would require public employee unions to get permission from individual members before using dues for politics—a measure known as “paycheck protection.”

Labor organizations annually dump tens of millions of dollars into state and national politics. Unfortunately, workers often have no say in how the money is to be used. While paycheck protection does not take away a union’s right to spend dues on politics, it does something almost as bad in the eyes of union officials: it requires the union to get a member’s written permission before using his or her dues for political activity.

The first paycheck protection law was adopted by Washington state in 1992. Since then, five other states have enacted various forms of the law. The measure is based on the common sense idea that no one should be forced to support political causes against his or her will.

By qualifying for the California ballot, this measure—once known only to policy wonks and a few union members—will be given a national platform and a compelling spokesman, should Schwarzenegger decide to endorse the initiative.

This worries union officials because they know that workers, when given a choice, overwhelmingly refuse to support union political activity.

After Washington state passed paycheck protection, contributions to the Washington Education Association political committee dropped from over 80 percent of teachers down to 6 percent. Utah adopted paycheck protection in 2001 and now nearly 95 percent of Utah Education Association members refuse to contribute to the union’s political fund.

Workers refuse to support their union’s politicking because the spending is usually at odds with individual member preferences. For example, although at least 30 percent of California Teachers Association members are Republican, the CTA just approved a $60 per-member dues increase in order to raise $50 million to fight paycheck protection and a Republican governor’s education proposals.

This spending discrepancy is consistent with a national trend. The AFL-CIO and affiliate SEIU spent a combined $100 million to mobilize union household voters against President Bush in 2004, but surveys indicate that at least one-third of union voters cast their vote for Bush in the last election.

Forcing a politically diverse workforce to fund organized labor’s single-party devotion is fundamentally unfair. Paycheck protection is a common sense measure that requires unions to raise political capital one individual at a time—just like any other political player—but union officials can be expected to fight the encroachment on their monopoly over California public employees for all they’re worth.

A storm is brewing, given the unrest within organized labor’s leadership and the dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members.

It may be time for Big Labor to invest in umbrellas.

Michael Reitz is director of the Labor Policy Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation , a public policy research organization based in Washington state, where the nation’s first paycheck protection measure was passed in 1992.

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