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Union Dues for Political Campaigns?

Copyright © 1997-1998, 2005 by David E. Ross

A labor union organizes workers to present a united force when negotiating with employers about such issues as compensation, working conditions, and job security. In many cases, all employees benefiting from a union's negotiations with their employer are required to become members of the union if they want to remain employed. A union charges its members dues (usually its only source of revenues) to pay the costs of organizing and negotiating. These dues also fund the overhead costs of operating a union — and very often to make contributions to political campaigns.

This practice of unions using dues to make political contributions has drawn renewed attention both in Congress and in state politics. Bills in Congress would prohibit this practice, and a prohibition will appear on the ballot in California in June. The proponents of these prohibitions point to the unfairness of mandating dues from captive members to make political contributions, especially when supporting election campaigns is not a valid purpose of a union. Of course, it seems that most of these proponents are Republicans who are upset that union contributions generally go to Democrats who then block Republican attempts to weaken the ability of unions to protect workers.

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In the June 1998 California election, Proposition 226 was defeated with a 53% "no" vote. Since then, the passion in Congress to legislate on this issue cooled. But the issue itself is still alive.

In California's pending November 2005 special election, Proposition 75 would prohibit public employee unions from using dues or fees for political contributions unless the employee provides prior written consent each year. This is a "divide-and-conquer" approach, limited this time only to the unions that represent government employees. If this passes, a following election will see a proposition extending the same prohibition to unions that represent employees in private industry. In the meantime, Proposition 75 does not require prior written consent from individual stockholders before corporations make political contributions.

As with previous proposals, Proposition 75 is again one-sided, an attack against Democrats (generally supported by the unions) without interfering with Republicans (generally supported by the corporations). I still support a balanced approach to this issue, not a one-sided attack. I will vote "no" against Proposition 75 as I did seven years ago against Proposition 226.

12 July 2005

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To a large extent I must agree with those who would prohibit union donations to political campaigns. Unions generally give contributions to politicians who support the unions' position on workplace issues. However, these politicians might not support the positions of individual union members on other important issues — issues relating to the environment, education, crime, and consumerism.

Yes, this Democrat endorses prohibiting union donations to political campaigns. However, that is only one aspect of coerced political donations. I own stock in several companies; my investments provide the capital that generates profits. Those corporations take my profits and donate them to political candidates who might support the companies' positions on business issues but who do not support my positions on other important issues. Just as it is wrong for a union to use dues for political contributions without approval from individual union members, it is equally wrong for a corporation to use my profits for political purposes without my approval.

Prohibiting corporate political donations is more complicated than stopping union donations. Union leaders generally receive only a salary with limited perquisites. Corporate executives, however, have a confusing array of compensation options. Far too easily, a corporation can covertly compensate an executive who makes donations to further the company's purposes. Indeed, this is a common, undeniable practice. While a simple prohibition against union contributions can be readily enforced, a prohibition against corporate donations must therefore address covert contributions and provide severe penalties against all participants when subterfuges are used.

Next June, I will vote against the ballot proposition that would prohibit union donations to politicians. Until a proposition combines prohibitions against both union and corporate contributions (with strong provisions for enforcing the latter), I will continue to vote No. After all, I do not belong to a union; union contributions do not affect me. But I do own stock, and I deeply resent corporate contributions of my profits to causes that are contrary to my personal interests.

29 December 1997

U. S. Senator Trent Lott (R, Mississippi) seems to agree with me. On the Senate floor, Lott proclaimed: "No one should be compelled by a union or a corporation or a Congress to give their hard-earned dollars to a candidate or a campaign." (Los Angeles Times, 24 February 1998) Of course, Lott's sincerity remains to be tested. His emphasis is on union, as he promotes his bill to prohibit political donations by unions. But his inclusion of corporation in his statement now presents an opportunity to make an issue of corporate donations during the pending Congressional elections.

Will Lott retract his implication that corporations should not spend their stockholders' money on politics? Will his Republican colleagues repudiate his statement? Will Democrats support Lott's position? Will hypocracy continue to control campaign reform?

24 February 1998


I sent a letter to Senator Lott about his speech and how it seemed to take a balanced approach to this issue by condemning political contributions from both unions spending their members' dues and corporations spending their stockholders' profits. The Senator wrote a reply to me, indicating that his mention of corporations meant that they should not spend money to help unions in their political causes. He sees nothing wrong with corporations spending the profits generated from their stockholders' investments on political causes that are contrary to the best interests of those stockholders. In other words: Forget balance!

11 May 1998

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