June 25, 2013 Print

How to Avoid Being Forced to Support Union Politics

Gary Davenport and four other teachers were fed up.

All of them had opted out of membership in the state teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association, because of the union’s support of political causes they disagreed with. But even though they were not actual union members, they were still required to pay fees to support the union - fees which the WEA continued to use on politics. They were determined to take action.

Understanding their predicament, however, requires a little background.  

Most unions, especially in the public sector, are heavily political. The Washington Federation of State Employees believes that “any union representing public employees and workers in the public service must have an effective political and legislative program,” and the Service Employee’s International Union proclaims that they are “the most effective advocacy and political organization in North America.”

To achieve such political influence requires large amount of money - money which comes from dues paid by union members.

Although the political views of union members are not uniform, union leadership has a singular political preference. For instance, while about one-third of union members nationwide tend to vote Republican, my research indicates that over 99% of union political donations in Washington’s election for governor last year went to support the Democratic candidate.

Even if a worker supports the same party as the union, he or she may still disagree with the candidates the union chooses to support. Fundamentally, no worker should be forced to support any candidate involuntarily through their union.

Current law provides an important option for workers who are concerned about their union’s political contributions to partially opt out. It is possible for a worker to give up union membership and become an “agency fee payer.” The Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and Communication Workers v. Beck that such workers may not be required to pay for “non-chargeable” expenses unrelated to administering the collective bargaining agreement. The worker will still have to pay full monthly dues to the union, but he or she may request a yearly refund of whatever portion of their dues went towards non-chargeables like political contributions.

While it is important for union members to know they have this option, the system is backwards: unions should have to get regular consent from individual members before spending their money on politics. Instead, they require objecting union members to annually opt-out.

In 1992, Washington voters addressed this problem by enacting a “paycheck protection” initiative which required unions to get annual consent from individual members before using their dues on politics.

The impact was significant. According to Mike Reitz, Executive Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, when teachers were given a choice, the WEA saw the percentage of teachers contributing to its political action committee decline from 82 percent to 11 percent.

The measure was unpopular with union leaders, who were upset about the decline of their political influence. Some unions, like the WEA, continued to use non-member collective bargaining payments for political activity without their consent.

This is where Gary Davenport and the other teachers drew the line. In 2000, the Freedom Foundation initiated a lawsuit against the Washington Education Association on behalf of the five teachers.  

The lawsuit culminated in a 2007 Supreme Court ruling which found that “the First Amendment allows a state to require public-sector unions collecting ‘agency-shop’ fees from non-union employees to obtain permission from the employees before using the money for political purposes.”

Unfortunately, while the ruling was an important victory, the state legislature had already passed a bill gutting paycheck protection, leaving workers back where they had started.

Although the law in Washington still does not adequately protect worker freedom, it is important for union members to know that they have the option to become an agency fee payer and lessen their compelled financial support of their union.  

Detailed information about how to become an agency fee payer can be found in our publication, “Employee Freedom - A Guide to Opting Out of Union Membership.”


Maxford Nelsen

Labor Policy Analyst

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