Acton Commentary

Give Laborers Their Due(s)


Last week on Capitol Hill, a significant event occurred that went unnoticed by most American workers.  Representative Charlie Norwood (R-GA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Education and Workforce Committee, conducted hearings to determine the progress made on guaranteeing all union workers their First Amendment rights under the Supreme Court's decision, Communications Workers vs. Beck . This important decision, handed down in 1988, ensures that workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act can withhold their compulsory dues from a union, minus that portion of the dues that go to the documented costs of collective bargaining. 

The Beck decision has significant implications for those workers who, in good conscience, find it necessary to question the political causes taken up by unions.  For many years, union leaders have pursued a political agenda quite at odds with the deeply held convictions of many of the workers they represent.  Due to the close ties unions maintain the political left, many workers have found their hard-earned dues supporting an agenda that makes common cause with the abortion rights movement, the “alternative lifestyle” crowd, and assorted radical environmental causes, to name just a few.  Furthermore, given the monolithic preference of union leadership for one political party over the other, many workers cast their votes one way and see their dues support another.  The growing divide between workers' values and the political agenda of unions finds some helpful clarification in the Supreme Court's decision, but the current situation of workers' “Beck rights” suggests the truth of the adage, “A right without a remedy is no right at all.”

Despite the strong decision for workers' First Amendment rights against compelled speech in Beck , Supreme Court decisions are not self-enforcing. Usually Court decisions require laws, regulations, and administrative actions to ensure that individual rights are adequately and fully protected. To date, no law codifying Beck rights has been passed.  Regulatory agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board, the agency responsible for the enforcement of Beck rights, have been instrumental in thwarting the exercising of Beck rights. This situation has left little room to maneuver for those workers who value the sanctity of their conscience and control of their hard-earned money.  Currently, the onus of pursuing and enforcing Beck rights is on the individual worker, most of whom do not possess the time, resources, and sophistication to enter into the legal and procedural actions necessary to vindicate their rights.

Unions themselves have been at the forefront of the battle to stifle a worker's right to a refund of his dues, minus the “documented costs of collective bargaining.”  It is the “documented” provision of the Court's decision that has provided union leadership the administrative wiggle room to deny union members a refund of their dues. Complicating matters still further is a 1995 ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that determined workers are only entitled to a union's “self-audit” of its non-collective bargaining activities.  This allows unions to define political and other expenditures any way they like and does not require anything close to an accurate documentation of expenditures.

It is easy to see why unions would seek to deny workers the ability to exercise their Beck rights.  Tens of millions of dollars would be lost to union political machines, which would lead, no doubt, to diminished union power over the political processes they have come to dominate.  In his encyclical letter, LaboremExercens (20) , Pope John Paul II notes the danger posed by the close association of unions and political activity:

“The role of unions is not to play politics in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today.  Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.  In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just right of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.”

Unfortunately, partisan political activity makes up a significant portion of current union activity.  The role of the union in protecting and aiding the exercise of workers' rights has been subjugated to a distant second or third place on the advocacy agenda of contemporary unions.

In this age when the scandals of “big business” are on all the front pages, it is quite reasonable that “big labor” should be taken to task for its treatment of workers, as well.  The purpose of any labor union should be to preserve the freedom of association that workers enjoy and to bargain on behalf of workers.  Most of the political activities undertaken by contemporary unions have little to do with preserving workers' rights.  Like those who invest in a corporation, transparency and accountability are essential for those workers who “invest” in a union through dues.  The various accounting schemes, procedural hurdles, and systematic obfuscation of information employed by unions to deny workers the exercise of their rights is reminiscent of the tactics used by several now-defunct and much-maligned “big businesses.”  I fail to see the higher morality of unions when they, like the “big businesses” they often denounce, retreat to procedural jargon and accounting tricks to justify a lack of transparency and accountability to dues-paying workers. 

If unions are to undergo any meaningful reform, they must firmly commit to an agenda requiring greater transparency of financial expenditures and accountability to their workers.  Four common sense proposals, offered by Kenneth Boehm of the National Legal and PolicyCenter, would go far in introducing accountability to members and transparency in financial matters:

  1. Workers should be reliably informed as to their Beck rights.  Any attempt to misinform workers on the subject should be prohibited and punishable.
  2. Unions should be required to provide workers with independently audited financial statements, accurately reflecting how much of their dues are spent for bargaining, as opposed to political lobbying, organizing, and other non-essential union activities.
  3. Workers should have readily available legal protection against coercion or intimidation when exercising their rights.
  4. The burden of proof in exercising Beck rights should be on the parties attempting to deny these rights, not those who wish to exercise them.

For too long, workers have been denied the right to exercise their consciences in objecting to the extraneous political agenda of unions.  The Supreme Court has spoken clearly in its decision to recognize the right of workers to exercise their consciences, but much still must be done in order to ensure that workers can successfully exercise this right.  Labor leaders should practice what they preach and give laborers their due(s).