George Will

WASHINGTON -- Democracy is rule by persuasion, but the unpersuasive often try to coerce the unpersuaded. Recent days have provided two illustrations of this tendency, both of them pertaining to labor unions, whose decades of declining membership testify to their waning power to persuade workers that unions add more value to workers' lives than they subtract.

Failing unions, like failing industries, turn to government for protection in the form of coercion. Failing industries have traditionally sought corporate welfare in the form of tariffs (coercion of consumers). Unions seek laws to confer what their persuasiveness cannot convince people to consent to.

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the Washington Education Association (WEA), Washington state's teachers union, which was claiming a perverse government-conferred entitlement. Five days later, organized labor and its political allies, including she who would be president, marched in Washington, D.C. They were asking Congress to deny to workers, whom unions are trying to organize, the right to a secret ballot. Both cases also illustrate the increasingly casual resort to abridgements of the rights of free speech and association.

Many states, including Washington, allow ``agency shop'' agreements whereby unions can levy fees on public employees who choose not to join a union but are represented by the union in collective bargaining. Thirty years ago the Supreme Court held that nonmembers cannot be forced to pay the portion of union fees that are used not for collective bargaining but for political activities. Often states have ``opt out'' provisions, whereby nonmembers are required to request that the political portion of their fees be refunded.

About 3,500 of Washington state's approximately 70,000 teachers choose not to join the WEA, which made opting out a tedious chore. To get their refund -- about 25 percent of their fees -- the nonmembers had to follow procedures detailed in six pages of arcane instructions.

In 1992, however, Washington voters approved by referendum an ``opt in'' rule. Unions were forbidden to use nonmembers' fees ``to influence an election or to operate a political committee, unless affirmatively authorized by the individual'' (emphasis added). Amazingly, the WEA persuaded the state Supreme Court that requiring it to ask permission before using other people's money -- for political speech that those people do not want to finance -- was an unconstitutional burden on the WEA's right of free speech. This novel, to be polite, theory did not persuade even one of the nine often fractious justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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