The case for a national Right to Work Act

By David Kendrick
web posted January 22, 2001

For estimates of Big Labor's most recent political spending spree consider the following bits of evidence.

  • During the Iowa caucus campaign, AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal admitted that the federation and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) "alone sent thirty-five full-time organizers to Iowa." The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions "brought a tractor-trailer to Iowa City and parked it outside the Gore headquarters just off Interstate 80." Armed with a war room of "computer systems, telephones, and a sophisticated phone-banking plan," union activists spent the last two weeks of the campaign making "thousands of calls from this trailer to union households throughout the state."
  • In the final days of the New Hampshire primary campaign, union families received numerous telephone calls urging them to vote for Al Gore. These calls were backed up by an intensive get-out-the-vote effort. Rosenthal says the AFL-CIO's "own professional staff coordinated the mobilization effort. In addition, the union made phone banks available for Gore's campaign, charging them a fee per call for use."
  • In the California primary, unions conducted "worksite blitzes" in which shop stewards and union organizers talked politics at the employees' workplaces. The California Labor Federation (CLF) trained more than 100 activists for these blitzes, and they, in turn, helped train people at local unions to do the same. At least half a million flyers contrasting Gore's positions to Bill Bradley's and, in some cases, to George W. Bush's, were handed out at work sites. "For example, in Alameda County, at least 15,000 to 20,000 additional pieces of literature comparing Gore favorably to the other candidates were distributed through such a worksite network."

This rare inside view of the kind of electioneering that usually does not show up in union documents comes from Getting Inside the Outside Campaign, a study by David B. Magleby of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. Magleby interviewed union operatives who described how they were on the front lines of Al Gore's presidential campaign from the very first primaries. Union political activity for Gore continued past the primary season and into the general election.

  • In Pennsylvania, the Service Employees International Union -- one of the fastest growing unions in the government sector -- paid the salaries of 80 workers taking leave from their regular jobs to work full-time on the SEIU's political operations, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne reported last September 22.
  • On October 23, subscribers to the AFL-CIO's weekly newsletter, Work in Progress, were warned that the newsletter staff was hitting the road for "volunteer" politics. "As a result, the next two editions of WIP will be abbreviated (one-pagers) and will be available on the Web and via e-mail only. There will be no fax edition for those two weeks."
  • The Washington state AFL-CIO planned to distribute 200,000 "voter guides" the weekend before the election. The guides do not explicitly endorse candidates, and therefore do not count as contributions. But, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "they offer a side-by-side comparison that almost always favors Democrats." [1]
  • Painters and Allied Trade President Michael Monroe told the Wall Street Journal that he had "freed nearly 600 of his full-time union employees to work on the presidential campaign." [2]
  • On October 29, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, in partnership with the local AFL-CIO, began "daily shuttles for voters wanting to submit absentee ballots, then provide Election Day rides to the polls." [3]

When the campaign continued well past November 7, organized labor did not let up.

  • Following the election, some 100 union organizers in Palm Beach County shifted gears from getting out the vote to helping Al Gore "find" votes to win the presidency by going to work on the Florida hand recounts. The Democrats quickly set up shop at the local headquarters of both the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Plumbers & Pipefitters Union. A week later, the AFL-CIO added more manpower to the operation, shaking the trees for voter complaints with phone banks and door-to-door canvassing. [4]
  • The Los Angeles Times reported that union observers were instructed, "if you see any kind of mark -- a scratch, a dent, a pinprick in Al Gore's column -- that you challenge." When asked about indents for Bush, the instructor said, "Keep your lips sealed." [5]
  • As the campaign shifted to the courts in December, AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and AFSCME boss Gerald McEntee began planning protests with the Florida AFL-CIO. Working to increase turnout at these demonstrations, local union activists set up a phone bank in Miami at a local union hall. Florida AFL-CIO Head Marilyn Lenard told The Wall Street Journal on December 4 that she "worked throughout the weekend sending ‘blast faxes' to union members, hosting conference calls and holding meetings."

Where Does Labor Get Its Money?

Officials of the AFL-CIO like to say they set aside $40 million to support candidates in the 2000 election campaign. But this claim distracts attention from the hundreds of millions of dollars that unions spent on in-kind activities, such as paid "volunteering," workplace canvassing, phone banks, and get-out-the-vote drives. Experts estimate that Big Labor's total in-kind spending could be as much as $900 million this past election year.

Big Labor has a unique source for its campaign largesse. Only organized labor has the power to seize the earnings of employees under the threat of firing. Federal law gives this power to private sector unions, while state laws authorize government sector unions to compel payment of union dues. The upshot: Eight out of ten Americans in unionized workplaces are forced by contract to pay union dues as a condition of employment. And because nearly 40 percent of unionized voters regularly vote Republican, that means some 4 million working Americans are being forced to contribute to the campaigns of candidates of a political party they do not support.

Union in-kind expenses for political campaigns never show up in the ledgers of union political action committees (PACs) because they come directly out of workers' dues. On September 1, 2000, the AFL-CIO's political action committee (PAC) reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that it contributed about $400,000 to federal candidates. But in 1999, AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal told the Washington Post that the federation would spend some $40 million on in-kind activities, such as door-to-door canvassing and get-out-the-vote drives.

What explains the enormous disparity between what PACs report and what unions spend? The answer is that PACs need only report direct expenses in support of candidates. Moreover, even the $40 million is only the tip of the iceberg of total union political spending. Rosenthal admitted that the AFL-CIO's $40 million "does not include money and manpower spent by individual unions on education and get-out-the-vote efforts." The larger unions, like the Teamsters and United Auto Workers, have revenues more than 20 times the AFL-CIO's.

The costs of in-kind political contributions are hard to quantify because unions hide them in their operating expenses. But some estimates are possible. The $40 million that Rosenthal mentions is about 13 percent of the AFL-CIO's budget. If the 25 largest unions spent the same percentage of their receipts as the AFL-CIO federation does on politics, then unions could be spending up to $900 million over a two-year election cycle. Union political spending reached record levels in the first 18 months of the 2000 election cycle -- total reported union PAC contributions shot up by 33 percent over the $48 million contributed to federal campaigns in 1996.

Dues Compelled by the State

But the real issue is not how the money is spent, but how it is collected. In a democracy, citizens are free to spend their own money on political causes and candidates. But union bosses take hundreds of billions of dollars in dues from the paychecks of America's working people as a condition of their employment. Unions have enjoyed this power since the National Labor Relations Act was passed more than 60 years ago. No religious, trade, or any other private association has the same power -- and that power, not PAC spending, should be the target of government reform.

Unfortunately, reforms aimed at controlling union PAC spending ignore the issue of forced dues, which is the real source of union political spending. Union officials will be weaned from their dependence on the dues of millions of unwilling workers only when Congress passes a National Right to Work Act.

Under federal labor law a union is given the monopoly power to bargain for all employees at a worksite whenever a majority of them vote to have it represent them. (In many cases -- as when a compliant management accepts so-called "card check" agreements -- the union can even acquire monopoly power without a secret ballot vote by the employees [See November 1999 Labor Watch].) As soon as it has secured monopoly power, the union can then impose terms and conditions for employment on all employees -- including those who do not want union representation. [6]

An employer is then compelled by law to bargain with union officials over a wide range of issues, including the requirement that all employees pay dues to the union or be fired. [7]  Refusing to negotiate over whether employees will be required to join the union can subject the employer to a costly "unfair labor practice" proceeding under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which the NLRA set up to hear such proceedings, has in recent years been stacked with former union lawyers sympathetic to organized labor.

An employer who consents to a contract provision that requires compulsory unionism then becomes the enforcer of the union's compulsory dues requirement. Sometimes employers accept compulsory unionism because the union offers attractive concessions in exchange. And some employers have reason to believe their business will be harmed if they resist the union. But in any event, the employee who does not want to pay union dues is the loser. Only in Right to Work states are employees protected from being fired for non-payment of union dues.

According to U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of National Affairs estimates going back more than a decade, at least 80 percent of all private sector workers covered by a union contract are required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. [8]  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that amounted to at least 8.1 million working men and women in 1999 who were forced by contract to pay union dues.

In 34 states, union officials have the same monopoly bargaining privilege under state law to speak for teachers and other state government employees. In 20 states -- including large states like California, Michigan, Ohio, and New York -- most government workers can also be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Federal government employees work under the jurisdiction of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, a federal agency whose role is analogous to the NLRB in the private sector. [9]  (Railroad and airline workers are covered separately by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). They have little legal protection against compulsory union dues regardless of their state of residence.)

Union Money and Political Power

How does organized labor wield political power "out of all proportion to our numbers," as former Communications Workers chief Glen Watts put it? The answer is forced union dues and the manpower and organization it buys. Until his retirement in 1990, Victor Riesel was probably America's most prominent labor journalist. He estimated that organized labor directly contributed around $1 million to federal candidates in 1968 and 1972, but actually spent $60 million in 1968 and $50 million in 1972. When Alexander Barkan, director of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE), complained that these were gross overestimates, here is what Riesel replied:

"If you apply cost accounting to what the unions do in a political way . . . you will find that the noncash contributions consist of staff time -- meaning union officials who are assigned to campaigns for months on end -- printing costs, postage, telephone and various other support services financed entirely with compulsory union dues and fees. It is time and services, not just cash contributions alone, which I consider in making my estimates. I know my estimates are right. I know they spent the time and money. Let them open their books if they say they didn't." [10]

In 1976, Riesel reported, organized labor spent more than $100 million on its political operations -- 10 times the $10 million in PAC contributions which union officials reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that year. [11]

The numbers were ballooning even larger by the 1990s. During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Dennis Rivera, chief of the Health Care Employees Union's New York City local, told CBS News that organized labor "put $47 million into the candidates for the Democratic Party," and that was with the nationwide fall campaign still to come. [12]  When Rivera made his comment on July 15, only $10 million in union PAC contributions had been reported to the FEC. By his own admission, total union political spending at this stage was nearly five times the reported PAC contribution totals.

Former Teamsters communications director F.C. "Duke" Zeller provides further corroboration in his 1996 book, Devil's Pact. Fired by incoming union president Ron Carey in 1992, Zeller quotes a Teamsters vice president, Gene Giacumbo, who revealed that Carey once boasted to the union's executive board that the Teamsters spent $56 million to aid the Democrats' 1992 campaign. [13]  But the Teamsters' PAC -- officially named Democrat Republican Independent Voter Education -- only reported $2.4 million in direct contributions to candidates that year.

The total income of private sector unions is now about $14 billion a year. Some $5 billion comes from employees who will be fired if they refuse to pay dues. [14]  How much of the $14 billion is spent on politics?

Because they have to report the expenses of their political action committees (PACs) to the Federal Election Commission, union officials admitted to spending at least $105 million on contributions and expenses in 1996. But Rutgers University labor economist Leo Troy told a March 26, 1996 House oversight committee hearing, "I estimate that ‘in-kind' expenditures could reasonably be a multiple of 3 to 5 times that amount." This would amount to anywhere from $315 million to $525 million on in-kind politicking in 1996. Where did the money go? You can't hide a third of a billion dollars.

A few years ago, the magazine of the Steelworkers union gave a surprisingly honest answer to that question. It advised: "Use local treasury money [emphasis added]. It can't go for direct political contributions, but it can do a lot. Mailings. [sic] supporting or opposing candidates, phone banks, precinct visits, voter registration and get-out-the vote drives. Contributions to national, state or local COPEs [Committees on Political Education]. And it can be used to raise voluntary funds for the Steelworkers PAC." [15]

Why Beck Is Not Enough

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court finally began to face up to the violation of workers' First Amendment rights of freedom of association and speech. The Court's landmark decision, Communications Workers v. Beck, gave private sector workers legal grounds on which to object to the payment of union dues for politics [see December 2000 Labor Watch]. But polls show that nearly three-quarters of unionized workers do not know that they have a legal right to not pay dues for politics. [16]  And even when employees do discover this right, they must negotiate with hostile and recalcitrant union officials over how much they can seize from their paychecks.

Most unions operating under the scrutiny of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) -- and with the approval of the Supreme Court -- negotiate contracts that require "membership in good standing." In other words, if a worker wants to keep his job with his employer he must join the union and pay full membership dues. Supreme Court rulings are not self-enforcing. As long as union officials retain the legal right to compel payment of union dues, it is impossible for any employee or group of employees to ensure that they are not subsidizing a union's political agenda.

There is perhaps no greater authority on the misuse of forced dues for politics than Harry Beck, the telephone lineman who waged a 12-year legal battle that won for most private-sector employees the right to not pay for union politics. Beck recalls that his fight really began in the 1960s when, as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), he "noticed that the CWA brass paid little attention to the needs of the rank and file, concentrating instead on supporting Democratic political campaigns and liberal social causes." When he resigned his formal membership in the CWA, the union hierarchy slapped him with compulsory "agency fees" equal to full membership dues.

With free legal assistance from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation -- which began providing this service to workers in 1968 -- Beck filed suit against the CWA in 1976, and was finally vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 29, 1988. But with unions continuing to mislead employees about their rights -- with help from the NLRB and the Clinton Administration -- Beck himself concluded:

"[U]ntil Congress repeals or the High Court overturns the federal sanction of compulsory dues, workers will not have their full freedoms."

In Beck's view, the only bill pending in Congress that would accomplish this is H.R. 792, the National Right to Work Act, sponsored by Representative Robert Goodlatte (R-VA). Introduced on February 23, 1999, the bill is currently pending further action in the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations. "The National Right to Work Act is a simple one page bill that does not add one word to federal law," Goodlatte told a House Subcommittee. Rather, it repeals the forced unionism provisions of NLRA and RLA, and would restore individuals' rights to decide, "whether, when they get a job, they are going to be required to pay dues or belong to something that they may or may not believe in." He added --

"Right to Work takes nothing away from those who want to join labor unions. Right to Work allows individuals the right to organize, to collectively bargain and even strike as permitted under law. But it leaves the choice of whether to join or organize to the individual -- where it belongs." [17]

National Right to Work's Impact

How much in forced dues could be denied to Big Labor's political machine if the National Right to Work Act (NRTWA) were enacted? One way to gauge its financial impact is to compare the differences in union membership and payment of dues between the 21 Right to Work states and the 29 non-Right to Work states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the non-Right to Work states there are 582,171 employees covered by the NLRA who are not formal members of a union. Nonetheless, they must pay what is generally called an "agency" or "service" fee as a condition of employment. [18]

Under the Beck decision, no compulsory fees can be used for political and other activities that the union cannot prove are related to "collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment." [19]  In the Beck case, CWA union officials could only prove that 21 percent of the dues they collected was spent on collective bargaining. [20]  So presumably workers who refuse full union membership should pay a substantially reduced fee than full union members.

Big Labor's stonewalling has created a far different reality. In 1996, as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney bragged about politicking for Democratic candidates, many employees were trying to invoke their Beck rights but found themselves blocked by their unions. In subsequent congressional hearings in 1997 and 1998, they told stories of local union officials who pretended not to know about the Beck decision, or initially refused to acknowledge their Beck rights, or grudgingly offered only nominal reductions in their dues. For instance:

  • Daniel Kosowski, a broadcast engineer in Milwaukee, told his story to the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations on July 9, 1998. In 1996, he asserted his right not to pay for union politics to Local 715 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Local 715 officials told him that his agency fee would be no less than full membership dues.
  • In December 1998, before the same subcommittee, Oklahoma labor commissioner Brenda Reneau described the experiences of two employees who called her office for help in asserting their Beck rights. One bus worker, transferred from the Right to Work state of Texas to non-Right to Work Oklahoma, asserted his right not to pay for union politics and was told that his forced dues would be reduced by a mere 1.2 percent. The local Teamsters union told another employee that his forced dues would only be reduced by 6.9 percent.
  • USAirways employee John Maisello, from Charlotte, NC -- subject to the Railway Labor Act (RLA) which does not allow the protection of Right to Work laws -- had to pay dues to the International Association of Machinists even though North Carolina is a Right to Work state. In 1995, Maisello asserted his Beck rights and was told that he would still have to pay 83 percent of full dues. He told his story to the subcommittee on January 21, 1997. After refusing to give up his fight, Maisello was fired in 1999.
  • Southwest Airlines employee Kevin Spence, of Phoenix, AZ, faced the same predicament. When he asked the Teamsters union to reduce his dues to only that amount related to collective bargaining,

Teamsters officials cut his dues by a mere 4.8 percent. He testified before the Employer-Employee Relations subcommittee on July 9, 1997.

Stopping the Union Gravy Train

As these cases illustrate, there is little legal recourse for the 582,000 non-member workers in non-Right to Work states, who can still be forced to pay up to 90 percent of full membership dues. [22]  Private sector union officials collect an average of $645 a year per union member. Enactment of a National Right to Work Act would free these non-members from the legal requirement to pay so-called agency fees, which would deny organized labor $338 million a year in forced dues.

Let us go a few steps further. In non-Right to Work states, non-members -- who must still pay agency fees -- comprise 7.4 percent of private sector employees under union contracts. [23]  By comparison, in the 21 Right to Work states, where private sector workers subject to the NLRA can choose not to pay any union dues, 16.1 percent of those workers covered by a union contract have exercised their right to not join a union. [24]  We might then anticipate that unionized employees in the 29 states that currently lack Right to Work laws would exercise this right at a comparable level -- raising from 7.4 percent to 16.1 the percentage of workers deciding not to join a union even though their employer is under a union contract. This would allow 692,000 more workers to keep the money they currently pay out as a condition for employment, about $444.2 million.

Add that to the $338 million which current non-members in non-Right to Work states would get back with a National Right to Work Act, and you have $782.1 million in forced dues that Big Labor would no longer be able to extract from employees subject to the NLRA.

Finally, for the sake of argument, let's add in unionized employees covered by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which has no provision allowing states to pass Right to Work laws. Today, there are 22,262 airline and railroad workers nationwide subject to the RLA who, though they have chosen not to join a union, must still pay about 90 percent of union dues as agency fees. [25]  Given the freedom to pay no dues to a union, these workers, about 4 percent of unionized employees subject to the RLA, could expect to get back $12.9 million. The National Right to Work Act would grant RLA-covered unionized workers the right not to pay any union dues if they resigned their membership. With this change, it is reasonable to assume that the percentage of non-members covered by the RLA would rise from 4 percent to 16 percent, the same figure for non-members in Right to Work states. Union officials could then expect to lose another $39 million in forced dues.

All told, Big Labor gets a free ride on the backs of millions of workers to the tune of about $830 million. And if you figure that nearly 40 percent of unionized workers tend to vote Republican yet see their dues go to Democratic candidates, then workers may actually be losing as much as $1.9 billion each year.

Half-hearted defenders of employee freedom of speech and association sometimes argue that we should stop worrying because unions are slowly withering away. But unions enjoy great political power because current law forces employees to join them, in violation of their basic Constitutional rights. A National Right to Work Act would restore these rights. It would also drastically curb union political power by eliminating the forced union dues that have been fueling the campaigns of Big Labor's political allies. ESR

David Kendrick is Executive Director of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, a non-profit research organization that analyzes the economic and social inequities of compulsory unionism. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capitol Research Centre.


[1] Charles Pope, "Unions' resurgence as political force is celebrated in state," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 24, 2000.
[2] Jeanne Cummings, "Painters' Brush with Politics Reflects Labor's Top Goal," The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2000.
[3] "Unions Step up Efforts for Democrats," The New York Times, October 27, 2000.
[4] Steve Miller, "Democrats bring in union volunteers," Washington Times, Nov. 18, 2000: Jeanne Cummings, "Big Labor Battles at Front Lines in Bid to Undo Florida's Decision on Electors," Nov. 28, 2000.
[5] Elizabeth Mehren, Jeffrey Gettleman, "Seasoned Democratic Army Hits the Shores of Florida," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 17, 2000
[6] 29 U.S.C 159(a).
[7] NLRB v. General Motors Corp., 373 U.S. 734, at 745.
[8] Basic Patterns in Union Contracts (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., 1995) p. 97.
[9] Freeman, Richard B. ed., When Public Sector Workers Unionize (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) p. 368.
[10] Orlando Sentinel-Star, November 3, 1973.
[11] Victor Riesel, "Unions Collect Huge Bankroll For Campaign," The Commercial Appeal, Sept. 5, 1976.
[12] Paula Zahn, interview with Dennis Rivera (Hospital Workers Union), CBS-TV, 10:00-11:00 PM, July 15, 199.
[13] Jerry Seper, "Book Claims Teamster Kept Clinton Slush Fund," The Washington Times, October 28, 1996.
[14] Calculated from LM2 and LM3 disclosure forms filed with the Department of Labor by all unions representing private sector workers in 1987.
[15] "How the ‘union-free environmentalist' is targeting your job, its security and hard-won benefits in 1980," Steelabor, July 1979, pp. 8-9.
[16] Luntz Research Companies, Initial Findings of a National Survey of Union Members, April 29, 1996.
[17] Prepared Testimony of Representative Robert Goodlatte, House Education and the Workforce Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, May 3, 2000.
[18] Hirsch, Barry T. and David A. Mcpherson, Union Membership and Earnings Data Book: Compilations from the Current Population Survey (CPS), (Bureau of National Affairs, Washington, DC, 1997) pp. 28-33. CPS estimates of union members covered by Railway Labor Act (RLA) provided by BNA Plus, then subtracted from CPS estimates of private sector union membership.
[19] Communications Workers of America v. Beck, 106 S. Ct., 2648 (1988).
[20] Barnes, Wilson K., Report of Special Master for US District Court for Maryland in Beck v. Communications Workers, Aug. 18, 1980.
[21] Prepared testimony of Kenneth F. Boehm, Chariman, National Legal and Policy Center, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, April 12, 2000.
[22] Hirsch, pp. 28-33
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] BNA.

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