Testimony of Matthew J. Brouillette, President, Commonwealth Foundation
Thank you Mr. Chairman and Members of the House Labor Relations Committee for the invitation to testify this morning on an important First Amendment issue. I am Matthew Brouillette, President of The Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based public policy research and educational institute.
I come before you today because nobody should be forced to pay for someone else’s politics. Let me repeat that: Nobody should be forced to pay for someone else’s politics.
This sounds like common sense, but labor unions in Pennsylvania are legally permitted to take money from union members’ paychecks to pay for union politics against their will. This violation of a basic First Amendment right must stop.
It is true that unions must get member approval for direct contributions to political action committees; however, my remarks today are specific to the monies used by unions for political purposes that come out of a member’s regular dues and fees.
This violation of workers’ rights takes place whenever one cent of a member’s dues or fee money is used for any purpose other than legitimate, chargeable union functions, such as collective bargaining, maintenance of the contract and grievances.
This amount is significant. Union books are nearly impossible to open up, but one analysis found that no more than 20 percent of union dues are being used for legitimate union functions. That means that 80 percent of a union member’s dues is used for political activities—activities such as voter identification programs, voter lists and get-out-the vote efforts, assisting in strategic planning for political parties, bankrolling campaigns, and organizing to elect or defeat candidates at nearly every level of public office.
Robert Chanin, the National Education Association’s General Counsel best summarized this situation when he said, “So you tell me how I can possibly separate NEA’s collective bargaining from politics – you just can’t…It’s all politics.”
Now, I want to make it clear that The Commonwealth Foundation does not object to labor union involvement in politics. And we are not disputing legitimate lobbying activities. But straight-forward politicking should be paid through voluntary contributions.
The problem, however, with the political machinery created by unions is that they are funded by automatic and sizable annual deductions from employees’ paychecks. Union officials claim that regular dues and fees go toward collective bargaining and related purposes, but this is simply untrue.
Here’s just one example that will help you better understand why protecting workers’ paychecks is so important.
In November 1992, the citizens of the state of Washington overwhelmingly approved Initiative 134 by almost a 3 to 1 margin. This measure—which was the nation’s first “paycheck protection” law—required unions to get members’ prior permission before spending their dues on political activities.
Within one year after it was enacted, 87 percent of the members of the state’s largest labor union—the Washington Education Association—chose to stop contributing money to the union’s PAC. Today, 91 percent of the WEA’s members refuse to voluntarily donate even $25 per year to the union’s political action committee. It is clear that WEA members—when given the choice—do not support the political activities of their union.
This is why the labor unions will vehemently oppose voluntary payroll deductions and fight the measure before this committee today: They know they cannot earn their members’ financial support, and it is easier to rely on coercion rather than persuasion.
Thomas Jefferson said that “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
So, I ask you, how long will Pennsylvania continue to force union members to financial support political activities with which they disagree?
Curbing the blatant violation of First Amendment rights would simply require that unions be required to obtain prior written consent of workers for activities that are not part of normal union representation.
Annual written consent will dramatically improve workers’ relationships with union officials because unions will have to use the power of persuasion—instead of coercion—to convince workers to support it’s political agenda. For example, no worker who supports an Ed Rendell would have his money taken from him to support a Mike Fisher, or vice versa.
I’m certain that you will have a handful of union officials telling you that this would be cumbersome and expensive for the union, but their comfort is not worth sacrificing the Constitutional rights of the workers who pay their salaries.
You will also be told that limiting dues to core union functions such as collective bargaining, maintenance of the contract, and grievances will silence workers’ voice in the political process. But voluntary support merely respects each employee’s individual right to decide to be politically active or not. It does not prohibit a union’s ability to solicit contributions and donations voluntarily by convincing workers that the union’s political activities are in their best interests.
Union officials often argue that legislation is unfair if it is not applied to corporations and other membership organizations that spend money in politics. But HB 2099 does apply equally to corporations. Yet labor unions will continue enjoy a unique “taxing” power that is not available to corporations. Their current power enables them to end the livelihood of any worker that refuses to or cannot pay union dues and fees. Corporations can neither force individuals to invest in them nor prevent them from selling their stock when those individuals disagree with corporate political spending. The termination power of a union makes this concern an “apples and oranges” comparison.
Of course, union officials will trot out all kinds of arguments to defend the current use of dues and fees for political purposes. However, regardless of how persuasive their arguments may seem, we must respect the First Amendment principle that “nobody should be forced to pay for someone else’s politics.”
While voluntary payroll deduction does not address all facets of the special powers, privileges, and immunities granted to labor unions under the law, it does make a positive impact in enabling workers to control the expenditure of some of their dues.
Any move toward greater employee freedom and increased union accountability is worthy of widespread support.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pa.