Union workers coerced into political positions

People deserve to know their vote makes a difference, and all citizens have the right to expect that elections be free of coercion. Unfortunately, special interests too often muffle the voice of the people and distort the democratic process.

The recent state Senate race between Democrat Nathan Schlicher and Republican challenger Jan Angel in the 26th District was no exception. In terms of electing candidates, the race was the most important election in the state this year.

Labor unions threw their considerable weight behind Schlicher. The Washington State Labor Council touted his “100 percent labor voting record” in the last legislative session, and Schlicher expressed his intent to advance a “pro-labor agenda” in the future.

Unfortunately, much union activity in this election, like all others, relied on money forcibly extracted from union members.

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), about $1.6 million was raised to elect Schlicher. Our analysis revealed just over 30 percent of these funds, or about $500,000, ultimately came from labor unions.

Tired of all the negative political advertising on TV? The bulk of labor funds, about $300,000, went to support negative advertising against Schlicher’s opponent.

Furthermore, our estimates do not account for the full range of election spending by unions. A legal loophole allows union officials to avoid reporting any spending on the “political education” of their members. In this election, “Labor Neighbor,” the Washington State Labor Council’s “member-to-member political action program,” was dedicated to “engaging fellow union members” to “explain why Schlicher has earned labor’s strong support.”

While undeniably intended to influence the election, none of the funds spent on “Labor Neighbor” efforts must be reported to the PDC.

There is nothing inherently wrong with organized labor spending money on elections, but the source of union money is troubling.

In Washington, an employee working for a unionized business or government employer has no choice but to be represented by and pay fees to the union. Because employees have no alternatives, labor organizations are able to function like monopolies and charge more for services than they are worth.

Overcharging employees for union representation, which individual workers cannot refuse, gives union officials a steady stream of income they can use to advance their political agenda.

Of the money union political actions committees raised for the 2011-2012 election cycle, only about 15 percent came from voluntary individual contributions. The bulk of funds in union PACs came from union general fund transfers.

Some unions, like the Washington Federation of State Employees, do not even maintain a state PAC. Instead, they simply make political contributions directly from their general funds, meaning that none of the money they spend on politics is voluntarily contributed.

As a result, individual workers are forced to engage in involuntary political speech as a condition of employment.

To add insult to injury, many union members do not support the political agenda of union officials. For instance, while exit polls indicate that 46 percent of voters in union households supported Republican Rob McKenna in last year’s gubernatorial contest, more than 99 percent of union funds went to Democrat Jay Inslee, according to our analysis of PDC data. The bulk of labor money supported negative advertising against McKenna.

Even union members who support the broad political goals of union leadership should be able to freely choose how to participate in the political process. Perhaps they would have rather contributed to support Inslee rather than attack McKenna.

Forced political speech is likely one reason why as many as 180,000 Washington union members would opt out of their union membership if they could, according to a poll from earlier this year.

The importance of preserving free political speech and democratic elections demands that individual workers be in control of their political activity instead of subject to union officials’ agenda.

Until these workers are given real choices about whether to join or financially support a union, elections like those in the 26th District will continue to be tainted by coercively collected union funds.

Maxford Nelsen is labor policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Olympia.