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The Right
To Be
Heard

It's
Our
Voice
And
Our
Right!

     Defeat the Attacks on Labor's Free Speech

 

By Walt Wojcik

The celebration of the defeat of California's Proposition 226 has been tempered by the continuing nationwide assault on workers’ rights to engage in the political process. Business, conservative and other anti-worker interests have embarked on a state-by-state and federal campaign to restrict or eliminate the ability of unions to use union funds for charity, voter registration, legislation, referenda, governmental policy and other public issues, political parties and candidates.

Bills, initiatives, and referenda have been introduced in over half the states and in the U.S. Congress in the past several months. These attacks have been euphemistically named "payroll protection acts," "workplace fairness actions," or "campaign finance reform bills." In reality, the legislation seeks to further restrict working peoples’ access to the political process.

WHY THE ATTACK ON WORKERS?

Working Americans, through their unions, have helped to win many important political and social victories throughout this century. Union dues have contributed to the fight for a 40-hour week and the eight-hour day, Social Security, child labor laws, equal job, housing and education opportunities, job safety laws, the minimum wage, time off to care for sick family members and new babies, and protections for Medicare, education and pensions.

While corporate interests outspent unions by an 11 to one ratio during the 1996 election year, the political victories counted by unions in the past several years have been impressive. These accomplishments, such as the defeat of "Fast Track," have triggered the Republican backlash against union members’ political participation.

WHO IS BEHIND THE ATTACK?

The ultraconservative Heritage Institute has suggested that the movement behind these "payroll deception" bills are "grassroots" in nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the usual anti-labor gang have supported the most recent unionbusting efforts. Key supporters of this movement are the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Tax Reform, GOPAC, Golden Rule Insurance Company, big business groups, and the National Center for Policy Analysis. These organizations have also typically supported such anti-worker legislation as the so-called TEAM Act, efforts to eliminate the minimum wage, and efforts to restrict Medicare and privatize Social Security.

WHAT WOULD IT DO?

While the proposals in the various states and in Congress have varied, a predominant theme in all of the legislation is the requirement that unions obtain prior consent, on an annual basis, from every member and agency fee payer to use dues and fees in support of political and charitable action. Such a "system" would create an onerous administrative and accounting burden for union locals and employers, effectively precluding any political activities by working Americans through their unions.

Payroll protection would place the burden on the vast majority of union members who support the endeavors of national lobbying on behalf of all workers. Many bills would also criminalize the violation of its terms.

Only a fraction of nearly any union’s expenditures are actually used for "political action." Dues and fees, especially in UE, are primarily used for the direct benefit of members. Dues dollars pay for arbitration, legal assistance, research for contract issues, education and training for local officers and members and organizing the unorganized and establishing new locals, among countless other activities. The fraction of those dollars that are used to support political action are primarily used to analyze, support or oppose legislation which may impact the UE membership.

UE members have a direct impact on how their dues are spent. UE is a rank and file union — the members control the actions of the union. Through the election of local officers and union representatives and participation in local, district, and national meetings, the members control the expenditure of dues dollars. Union members obviously have a much greater control over the expenditures of their dues than taxpayers do over their tax dollars.

(Non-members may decide to opt out of the payment of the very small fraction of their service fees which do not pay for "representational activities.")

WHERE ARE THESE GAG BILLS?

The number of bills, initiatives, and referenda are numerous. More than half of the states and the U.S. Congress have seen "payroll protection" proposed in some form. The differences between the proposals are as numerous as the proposals themselves. Currently, the only UE states which are directly threatened by "payroll deception acts" are Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Other actions have been defeated or are currently dormant. The Massachusetts House Bill would seek to restrict the use of dues collected by any union whose membership includes public employees. Even more draconian, Pennsylvania House Bill 1968 would preclude employers from making any payroll deduction that would be used for political purposes — barring even voluntary employee authorizations.

While the most serious attacks have been defeated, it is expected that the next political year will bring a new series of similar challenges.

(Walt Wojcik is an attorney in the UE Legal Dept.)


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