The modern labor movement is in a state of upheaval this year. The AFL-CIO-a national federation of nearly 60 unions-experienced a break in solidarity when several unions representing a third of the AFL-CIO’s members pulled out in July. Union membership is at an all-time low, with only 12 percent of the workforce belonging to a union, compared to one in three workers a half century ago. Big Labor’s candidates have lost the last two presidential elections. The power of labor appears to be waning.
The debate over how to reverse labor’s decline is the central conflict in the recent AFL-CIO split. The AFL-CIO old guard, led by its president of 10 years, John Sweeney, wants to continue with the heretofore failed strategy of amassing political power through increased campaign spending. On the other side, the dissident Change to Win coalition, championed by SEIU president Andrew Stern, wants to focus on organizing new sectors of workers, including pressuring multinational companies to allow their workers to organize, creating global unions. Ultimately, both factions seek to bring more dues-paying members into the fold in order to amass political clout.
Given the desperation of both sides to do whatever it takes to regain power, it is important to ensure that workers are protected from aggressive organizing and rampant political spending. According to a recent Zogby poll, just 35 percent of non-union workers would consider voting to unionize their workplace, while a 56 percent majority would not.
Look no farther than Washington state for an example of aggressive union organizing. Coercive union tactics and mandatory dues provoked a massive reaction among hundreds of state employees who worked this spring to throw off union representation. These workers believe individuals should have the choice of whether to join a union and pay dues; they did not want the decision imposed on them.
State workers also objected to the new collective bargaining agreements negotiated by their unions because thousands were never informed of the details of the contract or of their right to approve or deny it. Many employees were unable to obtain a copy of the contract they were asked to ratify, making it impossible to know what they were voting on.
The unions’ failure to adequately notify affected workers resulted in a extremely low turnout for the contract ratification. For example, of the approximately 30,000 employees covered by the Washington Federation of State Employees, only 6,133 voted.
Ultimately, the contracts went into effect July 1, 2005, doubling the size and strength of the state’s public-sector unions. According to the Office of Financial Management, the number of general government employees paying union dues went from 24,000 to 44,100.
Not only are workers forced to pay for union representation, union members are forced to subsidize rampant union political activity, whether they like it or not. In Washington, Public Disclosure Commission reports indicate unions and their political action committees spent a total of $7,856,500 in contributions to candidates, parties and political committees.
This political spending would be fine, so long as spending is member-driven. Unfortunately, most members have no idea how their money is being used. When given a choice, most refuse to support union political spending-only 6 percent of the Washington Education Association’s members contribute to the union’s political fund. Although Washington law requires that employees give written permission before unions can divert dues to a political committee, unions bypass clear member preference by spending dues on politics from general funds.
Union membership is fairly diverse in terms of political affiliation, but union monies almost always go to Democrat candidates. In Washington’s 2004 election cycle, unions contributed $3,064,850 to the Democrat Party and its candidates, compared to a paltry $203,000 to Republicans. Libertarian, Republican, and independent union members are not fairly represented by union spending.
In organized labor’s effort to regain momentum, protections should be in place to prevent unions from plowing over workers’ rights. This Labor Day, workers deserve to choose if they want to be represented and how their hard-earned money will be spent.
Michael Reitz directs the Labor Policy Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy research organization based in Olympia. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.