Union Fees Dispute Threatens Finance ReformBy Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 1997; Page A04
Nine years ago a Maryland telephone company worker named Harry Beck went to the Supreme Court and won the right to keep his union fees from being spent for political purposes. Now, the fallout from Beck's case has become a central and impassioned focus of the debate on changing the nation's campaign finance laws and could end up scuttling the whole deal.
Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), are insisting that any new campaign finance measure must include protections that go far beyond what Beck won at the high court.
They say that unions should be required to get written approval in advance from their members to use dues for political contributions, lobbying and other political activity. In addition, they insist, workers should not be forced to choose as most are now between resigning from their unions or subsidizing political activities with which they disagree, but should be able simply to withhold that portion of their dues and retain other union rights.
"Our political system depends upon one's freedom to participate without even the slightest degree of compulsion," said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), whose Paycheck Protection Act containing those provisions was introduced by Lott yesterday as the first amendment to the pending campaign finance bill. The Nickles bill has 33 co-sponsors.
Labor unions contend that approach would be unduly expensive and burdensome to administer and would unfairly single out unions, as opposed to other organizations in which membership is voluntary, for special restrictions on political activity. They say that all workers now have the chance to opt out from such political spending and that Lott and others aren't so much interested in protecting workers as they are in punishing unions for their extensive help to Democrats during the 1996 elections, including a $35 million advertising and voter eduction effort by the AFL-CIO.
"The obvious intent of this legislation, which is pushed by labor's enemies, is to hurt organized labor's ability to be involved in politics, which is certainly our right," said Jeff Miller of the Communications Workers of America, the union involved in the Beck case. The unions equate their position with that of corporations, which make political contributions without seeking the permission of their shareholders.
Advocates of campaign finance reform argue that the Republicans who insist on including such provisions are simply using the incendiary issue as a "poison pill" to prevent any larger change in election law.
"It's a direct effort to kill campaign finance reform," said Common Cause president Ann McBride. "No matter how anyone feels about the substance of this in another context, it has to be recognized for what it is in the context of campaign finance reform it's an effort to kill the bill" by getting Democrats to vote against it or filibuster.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill now being debated would simply write the Beck case into existing law. That would apply to situations where workers choose not to join the union but instead are required to pay agency fees equivalent to dues to the union a relatively small slice of the American work force, fewer than 1 million workers compared with 15 million union members.
The unions would have to notify workers that they have the right to withhold that part of the fee that goes to political contributions, lobbying and other purposes not directly related to negotiating or administering their labor contract.
The chief sponsor, Arizona Republican John McCain, said last week that he wanted his own bill to go further. "However, I recognize that stronger language would invite a filibuster of this bill and would doom its final passage," McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Unions, which once fought any codification of the Beck ruling, are now tacitly accepting that outcome while saving their fire for the Lott-Nickles approach. "We're spending our efforts on defeating Lott-Nickles rather than worrying about what's in McCain-Feingold," said AFL-CIO legislative director Peggy Taylor.
Meanwhile, in an odd political alignment, the National Right to Work Committee which is related to the group that brought Beck's case and has previously pushed for codification says it is opposed to any union provisions being included in a campaign finance overhaul.
The Right to Work Committee argues that it would divert attention from what it considers the more important goal of securing a national right to work law, similar to that now in place in 21 states, that would prohibit workers from being forced to join unions or pay fees equivalent to union dues.
"We've been largely counting on the unions to kill this legislation," said Right to Work spokesman Stan Greer. "The main constituency for this Beck codification as far as I can tell are Republicans in Congress who didn't like those ads being run against them the last time. They are not . . . concerned about workers being forced to pay union dues as long as those dues aren't funneled into campaign efforts on behalf of Democrats."
Although at least 30 percent of union members are Republicans, unions overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that unions spent at least $119 million on campaign contributions and lobbying during the 1996 election, including $9.5 million in unlimited "soft money" contributions, all but $224,000 to Democrats. In contrast, business interests gave $117 million in soft money.
In practice, unions say, they already inform their members and agency fee payers of their rights under Beck, and few choose to exercise them. At the Communications Workers of America, for example, the union represents about 630,000 workers, of whom 35,000 have chosen to pay agency fees rather than join the union. Of those, about 2,800 have opted to receive rebates of about 22 percent of their fees in advance. Workers are informed of their rights to such rebates when they join the union and annually after that.
But union opponents charge that unions fail to adequately inform workers of their rights, burying the notices in union newspapers, and then make it difficult for them to exercise objections by imposing strict time limits and changing the period in which they can opt out.
The debate on union dues is being played out in states as well. California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) announced last weekend that he would lead a drive for a voter initiative there next year that would require advance authorization from union members for political use of their dues.
"Every member of a labor union should not only be free to speak his or her mind, they shouldn't be forced to have their pockets picked for political causes they don't support and don't believe in," Wilson told a California GOP gathering.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company