The Public Policy

Compulsory ‘Free’ Speech

Anti-Right to Work unions turn the meaning of words upside down.

By 4.19.12

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What is free speech? Is it the right to speak out and give money to causes, politicians and push ideas? Is it the ability to keep silent and not support that with which a person disagrees? Or is it the power of a group to force its individual members to fund political causes and candidates they do not support?

On April 9, attorneys for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 (IUOE) argued that Indiana's Right to Work Law infringes on their free speech rights because -- get this -- it deprives them of the dues mandated from workers by "agency shop" provisions.

Earlier this year Indiana became the 23rd state in the nation to give workers right to work protections. Right to work laws allow employees at unionized worksites to keep their job without having to pay dues to a union. If individual employees like what the union is doing, they are still free to pay dues, but these contributions are purely voluntary.

This is a problem for IUOE because if workers are no longer required to pay, the union could lose the funds necessary to curry favor with politicians, through campaign contributions, and advocate for pro-union policies. IUOE argues in its 45-page brief:

In this case, the state of Indiana restricted a channel of speech-supporting finance … The Union legitimately utilizes dues money collected through the agency shop provisions in its collective bargaining agreements, in part, to finance political speech. The Indiana Right to Work law prohibits agency shop agreements, and that prohibition restricts a channel through which speech-supporting finance might flow.

Many union members disagree with their union leadership's political giving and activism, but if they work in one of the 27 states without right to work protections, they are forced to support an agenda with which they disagree, or lose their jobs. In most election cycles, around 40 percent of union members vote Republican, but only around 3 percent of union political giving goes to the GOP.

In response to union efforts to fund their political activities with forced dues, Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee), recently launched ProtectingOurWorkers.com, a website with the stated goal to "listen directly to American union workers about forced political contributions and to continue [the Committee's] efforts to hold both government and union leaders accountable to the rank-and file whose hard earned dues are funding partisan political activity they don't support."

Protectingourworkers.com provides examples of three rank-and-file union members who recently testified before the Committee about how labor bosses used their dues for political activity they did not support.

Terry Bowman, a current United Auto Workers (UAW) member, testified about how he "personally observed the intimidating political activities of [his] union." In response, he created the nonprofit organization Union Conservatives, he said, "because [the UAW] was using my regular union dues to push a political agenda that I opposed."

Sally Coomer, a private citizen, said that she was forced into the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) because of a Washington State bill that designates all home care providers who receive state aid as "public employees" and requires them to join a union. Coomer did not work for anyone, but she received Medicaid funds for assistance in taking care of her severely disabled 22-year-old daughter.

That was enough for the state to declare her an "employee" of her daughter and therefore eligible to be unionized. How is SEIU helping this mother who sacrifices every day to take care of her disabled child? By taking $95 out of her assistance checks every month. She told the Committee "they are taking my union dues out, they are funding things that are directly detrimental to the services that [her daughter] receives."

Against their will, Sally Coomer and others in her situation are helping to fund organized labor's huge political machine. Twelve of the top 20 political donors going back to 1989 are unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- with nearly all of that going to Democrats.

Free speech is not forced speech, which is what compulsory dues go toward. Workers should have the right to join unions and support their political causes if they wish, but no worker should be forced to be a member or pay an organization simply to keep his or her job. And no one should be required to fund political ideas they do not support. 

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About the Author
F. Vincent Vernuccio is Labor Policy Counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Director of Labor Policy for the Mackinac Center.