Big Labor Doesn't Know Meaning of 'No'

“I love seduction, but I hate rape.” I heard those words for the first time during my freshman year at college. George Mason University professor Walter Williams was giving a lecture on the role of government and the proper use of its monopoly on force in a free society.

Government isn’t alone in its ability to abuse its power. Labor unions have also failed to learn the lesson that “no” means “no.”

One of the most egregious examples of this is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. For the last five years, Washington state, its National Education Association-affiliated teachers’ union, and local teachers have been embroiled in a conflict over whether the union has a right to use non-member teachers’ dues in whatever way it chooses.

“Non-members” are teachers that have resigned from union membership, but are still forced to pay collective bargaining fees. In such a situation, U.S. Supreme Court case law lays out First Amendment protections to ensure employees are not forced to support political activity against their will.

Washington’s law, which was approve by 72 percent of the state’s voters, established the additional requirement that nonmembers must “affirmatively authorize” any use of their dues for union political activity. The union may not use a non-member teacher’s dues for political purposes without his or her permission, period.

The Washington Education Association (WEA) cried foul and claimed it has no “fiduciary duty” to the teachers it represents. The union boldly flaunted its disrespect for the will of the people and repeatedly violated both the spirit and the letter of the law.

Angered by the union’s disregard for their rights, several concerned teachers went to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the state attorney general for help. The Democratic Attorney General sued the WEA in 2001 and won a $590,000 judgment for its admitted violations. EFF assisted the teachers in bring a class action law suit against the WEA to recover their improperly used dues.

In a blatant disregard for the will of the people, the Washington state Supreme Court ultimately declared the campaign finance law unconstitutional. As Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders noted in his dissent, this horrendous decision “turns the First Amendment on its head” and endangers the rights of workers all across the country. This case, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by both the state and the teachers, has several far-reaching, national implications. Among them:

  1. The state Supreme Court’s decision placed the statutory rights of unions ahead of the constitutional rights of workers. The Court’s majority claimed the requirement to obtain teachers’ permission placed “too heavy an administrative burden” on unions—and this trumped the free speech rights of teachers. This perverts the First Amendment, changing it from a shield to protect people from coercion into a sword unions can wield to their own advantage.
  2. By striking the law down, the Court provided an example of judicial activism at its worst, usurping the role of the legislature. The legislature gives the union the ability to collect dues and therefore the legislative branch—which in Washington state includes the people through their power of initiative—has the authority to regulate the collection of dues.

    Even in “right-to-work” states, where workers have a choice whether or not to join the union, the question of whether or not their dues should be spent on politics is a debate that should happen in the legislature, not the courts.

  3. The Washington Court gave a clear signal to unions all across the country that it is open season on using dues for political purposes. When given a choice, union members overwhelmingly refuse to support the union’s political activity. When Washington’s law went into effect, voluntary political contributions by teachers dropped by 85 percent. In Utah, where union membership is voluntary, a similar law resulted in a 90 percent drop-off in teacher contributions. The union knows this and therefore will fight laws that strengthen worker protections.

Because of these national implications—affecting more than 17 million union-represented workers across the country—the Supreme Court must now address this issue.

Washington state is far from alone. All across the country unions wield enormous political clout by raiding the paychecks of the workers they claim to represent. In the 2004 presidential election cycle, organized labor raised a reported $199.5 million for their political organizations. The AFL-CIO said it spent $44 million on voter mobilization efforts; the Service Employees International Union spent $65 million. The National Education Association spent nearly $25 million on political activities and lobbying in 2005.

This political power is rooted in the union’s ability to force teachers to pay dues, or have them fired. Unions have a secure grasp on teachers’ paychecks through forced payroll deductions. Often, the union uses forced political dues to elect politicians who then implement pro-labor laws and policies, including mandatory union representation. This in turn leads to even more members and nonmembers for unions to exploit. Worst of all, unions then spend that money in a manner that is unaccountable to their members, voters, and taxpayers. Often, they use the money for political activities that the teachers may not support.

NEA members are a politically diverse group, but the union’s spending on political and social causes do not reflect that diversity. In 2004, NEA president Reg Weaver said the nation’s teachers are evenly divided between political parties—one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third independent. Yet that same year, the NEA gave 92 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democrats. The discrepancy continues to this day where, halfway through the 2006 election season, 87 percent of NEA PAC contributions have gone to Democrats.

The NEA’s spending on social causes does not reflect its diverse makeup either. A Department of Labor report filed by the NEA showed it gave almost 20 percent of its entire budget in contributions, gifts and grants to organizations that often lean left including:

  • Human Rights Campaign ($15,000)
  • National Women’s Law Center ($5,000)
  • Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition ($5,000)
  • Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network ($5,000)
  • Democratic Leadership Council ($25,000)
  • Congressional Black Caucus Foundation ($40,000)
  • Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute ($35,000)
  • People for the American Way ($51,000)

That is not political seduction of any sort; it is ideological rape. The union has as much right to participate in politics as it wants, but not at the expense of workers’ First Amendment rights.

This principle is of such national importance that, this week, a coalition of non-partisan, public policy research organizations from 12 states, along with the country’s largest, voluntary association of state legislators, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, encouraging the Court to accept review of the Washington vs. Washington Education Association case.

If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Washington decision, unions will be unleashed to spend their workers’ dues without accountability. It will embolden unions to challenge the will of the people of their state and to challenge the right of their legislature to establish laws.

If the Supreme Court overturns the decision, teachers and other union workers will have their free speech rights restored, and unions learn, once and for all, a lesson every first-grader learns: You must ask permission before taking something that does not belong to you.

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