Congressional panel wades into union dues battle

A congressional committee on Wednesday took up what it calls an issue of economic freedom -- one that pits unions against a number of governors and even some fellow workers.

The issue is simple: should workers, in private industry or government, have union dues automatically subtracted from their salaries -- whether they like it or not?

And voluntary or not, how much power should they have to keep the unions from spending their money on political campaigns they don't agree with?

"I feel like a prisoner to the union and its causes when I find that my union dues are going toward political purposes which I greatly oppose," says Sally Coomer of Duvall, Washington.

And Terry Bowman, a UAW member in Michigan, echoes that view, saying, "My union was using my union dues to push a political agenda that I oppose."

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Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, said this is not an anti-union issue -- but rather one of workers' rights.

"Do workers and unionized organizations have a right to know more than they currently know?" he asked. "What it's being used for, and whether in fact it has to be taken from them."

The states govern much of these issues. In 27 of them, unions can automatically subtract money from workers' paychecks, whether they join the union or not, on the rationale that if they didn't pay, they'd still benefit from the unions' collective bargaining.

"This creates a 'free rider problem,' where the union is obligated to provide services, but people are not obligated to pay," says Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a law professor at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law.

The other 23 states have what are called "right to work" laws that prevent automatic dues.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled that any workers who do pay money to the unions also have the right to keep it from being spent on anything other than collective bargaining, such as political campaigns.

UAW member Bowman, though, says that doesn't work very well for what he says are the 40 percent of union workers who vote Republican.

"That means almost six million union workers in the United States alone feel harassed and persecuted because of the political activities of their union officials," he said.

Democrats complained loudly that Congress should examine corporate money in politics, but many agree on worker rights.

"Unions may not force their members to pay for political activities they disagree with," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said. "Unions are already subject to extensive administrative procedures and reporting requirements to ensure they comply with these laws."

The Obama administration, however, has weakened those requirements.

President Obama rescinded an order from President Bush that federal workers be informed of their right to challenge how their money is spent, and polls show many workers are unaware of their rights.

Furthermore, the administration completely disbanded the federal unit in charge of auditing the largest unions. Officials says there will be zero audits in 2012.