Little-mentioned in coverage of last week's congressional elections was the role played by labor unions in turning out a big vote for the Democrats. According to the AFL-CIO, one in four voters were union members, even though unions make up only 12 percent of the workforce, and three quarters of them voted Democratic.
Unions remain the staunchest allies of the Democratic Party and its biggest source of "volunteers" -- often union members who are on the union payroll while they engage in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. And while there's nothing wrong with unions collecting voluntary political contributions from their members and donating to the candidates of their choice, much of what unions spend on politics is anything but voluntary. Two cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court could change that, Davenport v. Washington Education Association (WEA) and Washington v. WEA.
Voters in Washington state enacted a "paycheck protection" law through popular referendum in 1992, Proposition 134, which forced unions to get permission from their members before any of the dues they paid were spent on politics. The Supreme Court has previously affirmed the right of individuals represented by unions to seek a refund for that portion of their dues that goes to fund political and other non-collective bargaining-related activities, in the cases of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977 and Communications Workers v. Beck in 1988.
But those decisions, which have never been adequately enforced by the National Labor Relations Board anyway, have been interpreted to require that individuals petition the union annually for the refund, which many are afraid to do. Prop. 134 put the onus where it belongs: on the union to get members to agree that a portion of their dues would go for politics before it was deducted from their paychecks.
But when the state tried to enforce the law, the Washington state Supreme Court threw out the paycheck protection law in a bizarre opinion, claiming it violated the First Amendment rights of the union. Now the state court decision is being appealed by the state and groups representing both union members and nonunion employees.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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