Unions versus Workers

Although there are necessary limits to popular sovereignty (the Bill Rights is just one list of such constraints), as a general rule, the more fearful any organization or group is of popular sovereignty the less likely it enjoys the full assent of the governed. Many would argue that the requirement that someone join a union in order to work is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association. Unions argue that such requirements are necessary because even workers who do not join the union benefit from the collective bargaining carried on by unions on behalf of their membership. It is on this premise that union membership requirements have been maintained.

However, collective bargaining is not the only function of unions. Unions also engage in political advocacy and they use union dues to do so. Some people who were forced to pay dues despite not being union members, particularly those who may disagree with a union’s political positions, were more than a little annoyed that their money is being used in such ways. In 1976, 20 workers who chose not to become members of the Communications Workers of America brought suit against the union. The case took a long time to wind its way up to the US Supreme Court, but in 1988 in Communications Workers v. Beck the US Supreme Court held that the law “does not permit a union, over the objections of dues-paying nonmember employees, to expend funds collected from them on activities unrelated to collective-bargaining activities.” In other words, unions could collect dues from nonmembers for collective bargaining, but it violated the First Amendment to compel these workers to subsidize union political activities.

In 1992 (a little late considering that the Beck decision was rendered in 1988) the first President George Bush issued an executive order which required federal contractors to make workers aware of their rights under the Beck decision. When President Bill Clinton came to office he rescinded Bush’s executive making it more difficult for workers to appreciate their rights. In 2001 George W. Bush signed an executive again requiring federal contractors to inform their workers of their rights. If a Democrat is elected in 2008, the executive order will likely again be rescinded and once again workers rights will be whittled away through obscurity. This coupled with an effort earlier this year by House Democrats to eliminate secret ballots in union elections is a clear indication of how much unions and their political allies respect workers.

Unions are anything if not tenacious. In the state of Washington, a voter-approved initiative required state employee unions to obtain a nonmember’s explicit and affirmative consent to use union funds collected under the auspices of collective bargaining for electioneering. The unions claimed they met this requirement by sending a letter and assuming that no response implied affirmative consent. In a 9-0, the US Supreme court last week in Davenport et al. v. Washington Education Association declined to subscribe to such sophistry.

In all these cases, one has to wonder why unions that are supposed to act on behalf of workers are so ingenious a finding ways keep workers unaware workers of their political rights.

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