Political Hay

Fruitless Labor

Placating the unions only hurts the GOP.

By 9.25.09

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A half-century ago, labor unions' prodigious political influence might not have seemed so oversized. Nearly a third of American workers belonged to a union when memberships peaked in 1953. Now these organizations represent only one-eighth of the national workforce, but they've kept lots of lawmaking friends -- including many Republicans.

True, most GOP officeholders oppose the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would help unions organize reluctant workforces by rushing or bypassing secret-ballot elections. But even if EFCA dies -- as it should -- 28 states will still permit unions to force all of a company's workers, including nonunion ones, to pay dues.

Resurgent Republicans would have much to gain by enacting "right-to-work" legislation outlawing this practice. One problem though: Many Republicans support forced unionism. Some of them represent heavily unionized districts and fear that antagonizing Big Labor will jeopardize their seats. They may not share the union bosses' partiality to socialized medicine and high taxes, but they're partial enough to getting re-elected.

However, supporting a policy that forces workers to pay union dues doesn't expand the Republican big tent; it shrinks it. You'd think this would be obvious. Labor organizations overwhelmingly support Democrats on a national scale. Last year, the AFL-CIO spent $250 million encouraging swing-state residents to vote for Barack Obama over John McCain, while other Democrats running for county commissioner on up delightedly partook of Big Labor's generosity.

A few Republicans squeezed their way into unions' pockets, but they came out with small change. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, union contributions to federal candidates (almost all from political action committees) equaled nearly $75 million in 2007 and 2008. Ninety-two percent of that went to Democrats.

Organized labor gets that money from employee dues. Forcing unsupportive workers to pay them -- what Big Labor calls "agency shop" -- inevitably means unions will collect more cash. For Republicans, it's a costly policy.

But don't pro-union Republicans help their party by pacifying the unions so the GOP can win in difficult regions? The evidence is slim. Republicans tend to speak softly about where they stand on agency shop, but this January, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) put each of his colleagues on record by introducing a National Right To Work Act as an amendment to another bill. The amendment was tabled 66 to 31. The Republicans who voted to table it hardly did so out of electoral desperation.

Easy targets first: Some Republicans who voted against right-to-work plainly didn't have to. Republicans Mel Martinez of Florida (who was retiring anyway), Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee all voted to table, despite representing states that already have right-to-work laws. During their most recent electoral campaigns, none of these Republicans got much money from Big Labor's political action committees. All of their Democratic opponents got more.

Right-to-work advocates found Alexander's vote particularly surprising because he supports Tennessee's own right-to-work law and, according to the National Right to Work Committee, formerly supported a national right-to-work policy. He cited federalism as a reason for his vote. It was a confusing explanation. Since President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, labor law has been mainly in the federal domain. If the senator wanted to advance states' rights, he'd call for repealing the NLRA.

National Right to Work's legislative director Greg Mourad suggested that Alexander probably wants Tennessee to keep the industrial competitiveness that a state right-to-work law affords it. "He likes having that economic advantage, I guess," Mourad said. Maybe some of the other Republicans who voted to table had similarly weird, subtle reasons for doing so. But on this issue, the GOP can't afford weirdness or subtlety.

What about Republicans from forced-unionism states who voted against the DeMint Amendment? Some of them, like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kit Bond of Missouri, got less financial support from union PACs than their most recent Democratic rivals did. They didn't need -- nay, even have -- Big Labor on their side. All of the others, like Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio, so vastly out-raised their adversaries that they would have come out well ahead even if they received no labor money.

Still, there must be some Republicans in tough legislative districts who really need union leaders' support, right? Well, consider the three staunchly pro-union Republicans in the House of Representatives who are still cosponsoring EFCA. Unions likely couldn't have dealt any of them a mortal blow last November. New York's John McHugh, New Jersey's Chris Smith, and New Jersey's Frank LoBiondo all won re-election handily. Each out-raised his Democratic rival in the union-PAC category by hundreds of thousands of dollars. But each would have strongly exceeded his Democratic opponent in overall donations even if all the union funds in the race went to the Democrat.

Perhaps it's not about money, though. Maybe the labor Republicans worry they'll provoke a backlash among union members, costing them needed votes. If so, they can rest their fretful heads. Right-to-work laws almost always poll well, even among union members.

Polling union workers exclusively is a difficult and expensive task and is therefore done only occasionally. But a 2004 survey conducted by Zogby International for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center found that 63 percent of American union workers considered it unjust to fire an employee who doesn't pay union dues. Only 32 percent thought employers should fire workers who refuse. "Rank-and-file union workers support right-to-work and they oppose [EFCA]," Mourad said. "They believe in freedom."

It might be better, then, for all Republicans to back workers' freedom to decline to give money to organizations whose chief political purpose is electing Democrats. The future of organized labor depends on the support it gets from politicians: Globalism and technological innovation have made unions almost antique; their pension systems threaten to suck their finances dry; and the general public opposes much of their legislative agenda.

"I think [hesitant candidates] should poll their constituents," Center for Union Facts Managing Director J. Justin Wilson said. "The overwhelming number of their actual constituents is of course going to be pro-right-to-work." The labor movement is in poor health. By helping to keep this dying patient alive, pro-union Republicans put their own party at acute risk.

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About the Author

Bradley Vasoli is a staff writer at the Bulletin in Philadelphia.