Time to Labor to End Compulsory Unionism

“We want a legislative program led by leaders and staff with sufficient clout that they may roam the halls of Congress and collect votes to reorder the priorities of the United States of America.”

– Terry Herndon, NEA union Executive Director, NEA Convention, 1978

“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interest of school children.”

– Albert Shanker, AFT union President, Meridian Star (MS), August 13, 1985

This Labor Day, election year 2004, spotlights the goals expressed over two decades ago by presidents of the nation’s two largest teacher unions–goals which have nothing to do with the advancement of academic excellence for our children. They do, however, underscore union officials’ determination to control the nation’s political system and our nation’s future.

“For all the unions’ rhetoric about standing for the rights of working people, taking money from workers’ paychecks against their will to pay for a political agenda they oppose is the antithesis of workers’ rights…” asserts former union staff member Linda Chavez in her latest book, Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics. Chavez adds, “Union leaders have never been less effective in their founding purpose: to represent their members to employers. And they have never been more effective in–and dedicated to–their tacit goal of subverting the American political system to their own ends.”

According to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), nearly four in ten government workers (37.2%) were union members in 2003 compared with less than one in ten (8.2%) workers in private-sector industries. In Pennsylvania, current figures from the Washington-based Public Service Research Foundation show that more than half of the government workers (53.3%) in the Commonwealth belong to a union, while only one in six private sector employees (15.1%) do.

It is by monopolizing the workforce in any industry–be it government or the private sector–first, through “exclusive bargaining” laws, and then by collecting coercive union dues from all employees in a bargaining unit, that militant public sector union officials gain control of policy decisions for the purpose of furthering their own private and partisan agenda. As Ms. Chavez pointed out in her July 28 news release highlighting this year’s Democratic National Convention, “Even though unions have taken in more than $17 billion every year in members’ dues, they spend the lion’s share of that treasury on bloated bureaucracies and political action…. Private sector union members are paying higher taxes to fund Big Government, which may benefit public sector unions, but does little to help working men and women who don’t work for the government.”

Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the nation. Act 195, passed in 1970 by representatives elected through union officials’ political action, established the first criteria for eventual control of Pennsylvania public policy. Following that, compulsory unionism laws over state and education employees (Act 84 in 1988) and then over all local government entities (Act 15 in 1993) gave the major public sector unions–PSEA, PFT, AFSCME and SEIU–extraordinary power to control government’s direction and “to reorder its priorities.”

“If it weren’t for public employees,” states Ms. Chavez, “the labor movement would be cash-strapped and politically powerless. Public employees keep Big Labor afloat and, in turn, Big Labor uses its deep pockets and political clout to elect federal, state, and local officials committed to expanding the government, which of course will create more government jobs and thus more union members–and more dues”–and more taxes from Americans to support them.

School employees are severely impacted by the law. According to calculations derived from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s (PSBA) bargaining database, “agency shop” forced dues contracts have been agreed to in 66 percent of our school districts covering 73 percent of our teachers. We also have seen forced dues contracts become a standard demand over non-certified school employees–janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries and other support personnel–contracts which have nearly doubled in the past four years, now numbering more than 200.

The truth about compulsory dues contracts is that they are a powerful organizing tool for union officials bent on increasing their membership and control without having to prove their value or to work for the voluntary support of members. Before the law over school employees was passed, for example, the Pennsylvania State Education Association union (PSEA-NEA) had an annual membership loss averaging 1,400 members. Within 12 years after passage of the Act 84 forced dues law and the proliferation of forced union dues contracts, the PSEA union had an annual membership gain averaging 5,500 members.

Union officials argue, “Since you must pay the fee anyway but can’t vote, you might as well join to have a voice.” The truth is, the tyranny we have allowed in the form of compulsory unionism–by lack of vigilance in some cases and by intentional acts of political expediency in others–is not only anti-freedom, immoral, unfair, and unjust, it plays into the hands of those who directly threaten our individual liberty. Labor Day 2004 must be a call to action for all those who cherish that liberty to join together to restore freedom for all Pennsylvanians trapped by our compulsory unionism laws.

AFL union founder Samuel Gompers was right when he said, “The workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are not only impractical but a menace to their welfare and their liberty.” It’s time to return to the just system of voluntary, responsible, and responsive unionism in this new century. It is vital that we reclaim the heritage that made our nation a leader in the free world–a heritage of individual liberty.

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Susan Staub, an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation, is president of Pennsylvanians for Right to Work (www.PARightToWork.org). The Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org) is a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.