Labor’s Cheap Thrill

It only took $35 million for unions to become the bad guys again.

Until John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO last year, Republicans for years had barely mentioned the labor movement. They didn’t have to. The rich got richer. The median wage fell. In the third quarter of 1996, after a brief reversal, it went back to falling again. No one has the nerve to ask for a raise. For years, labor, or what was left of it, did nothing at all. Then last winter the AFL-CIO voted to spend $35 million for “voter education.” Not contributions to candidates: i.e., hard money. But just telling people about politicians’ voting records: soft money. And suddenly denunciation of “labor bosses” is on every Republican lip.

Now, it’s a pittance, right? $35 million? Business vastly outspends labor on political contributions–seven to one, according to the New York Times the other day. So why does the GOP worry? Why is $35 million, against business’s hundreds of millions, such a crisis? Why is Republican control of Congress now at stake, with such a laughable amount? Because the GOP has big, big trouble if there’s even a whisper that:

Your real wage has fallen.

Inequality is spreading like a plague.

Medicare and student loans are now “in play.”

With only $35 million, hey, word could leak out. Maybe business can outspend labor by nine to one, or 90 to one, but it can never spend enough to cancel the message out.

But isn’t it unfair for union members to have to pay for this, from “compulsory” dues, when many vote Republican? No, it is not unfair. First, members can opt out, or object. Typically, members every year get cards: “Remember, you can opt out of paying dues for extra political work.” Conservatives have sued unions over this for years. Unions must have major audits, segregate money. There is notice, hearing, rebate procedure. (The kind of due process liberals dream of for the poor but never get.)

Compare this machinery with your rights as a company stockholder. Can you opt out of the company’s soft-money political spending? No. Do you even know what they’re doing? No. With millions of us in mutual funds, who has any idea what political messages we’re paying for?

But back to unions. Do members in fact opt out, with all their legal rights to do so? No. The highest opt-out union right now is the Communications Workers of America, which until recently was an “open shop,” meaning that many members never paid dues at all. Out of 600,000 CWA members, there are currently about 2,000 objectors. In other unions, the opt-out rate is much, much lower.

So if union members do vote Republican, why don’t more of them opt out of soft-money spending on ads that, implicitly at least, criticize Republican candidates? Maybe members want to cast their own votes, but they still like to hear what their union says. Because of abortion or gun control or the Cold War, I may decide I want to vote for the GOP. But don’t I want to hear my union’s voice on issues where the union has some expertise? That’s why labor is making fewer endorsements. Just provide the consumer advice. On wages, Social Security, Medicare. Let people make up their own minds.

The notion that millions of union members are being forced against their will to help finance this union campaign is simply a Republican fantasy.

W hen labor gets involved in politics, this is not a detour from its “real” job of negotiating wages and hours. Soft money for voter education. That is labor’s real job, the very core purpose of a union. Ever since the Supreme Court decision that required the “opt out,” the court has drawn a wobbly line: Negotiating wages? OK. Discussing politics? Oh, that’s an “extracurricular,” unrelated to the union’s “real” work.

But as Felix Frankfurter wrote in dissent, this distinction is silly. After all, what is Social Security but a job benefit? Either the union gets the pension directly at the bargaining table … or indirectly in Congress. Or what about Clinton’s poster child, “family leave”? Crawl off in a corner and give birth, without pay? Still, it’s something. Either labor can get it directly from the boss, or labor can get it from the boss via Congress. What’s the difference, except in the latter case all of us benefit?

At least Frankfurter, a New Dealer, understood–as we no longer can–what a union is supposed to do. In Europe the labor movement often began first as a “labor party.” The parliament was the bargaining table.

But when labor defends Medicare, isn’t it still being a special interest? No. What’s unique about labor is: It’s not a special interest or a single issue. Special interest? It’s not like R.J. Reynolds looking for a tax break. The AFL-CIO is never, or rarely, looking for something that helps the AFL-CIO purely as an institution. “Look at the last session,” an AFL-CIO lawyer friend said to me recently, “What was labor fighting for? Stop Medicare cuts. Raise minimum wage.” These “soft-money” fights mostly help … not union chiefs, or even members, but the nonunion masses: the private-sector 90 percent who have no union at all.

Who benefits, then? You. Me. Aren’t we nonunion types the freeloaders? Why do the 10 percent in unions have to pay for our battles? That is the real unfairness of soft money.

Of late, business groups have begun running “counter ads.” Sure. But what can they “counter” with? “You don’t need a minimum wage”? “Let’s cut back Social Security”? “Isn’t your standard of living getting too high”? No, Business can’t counter the ads. It has to change the subject. Thus: “Labor bosses!” (But what about business bosses?)

“Union corruption!” (That’s been true, sometimes, but who pays the money to corrupt unions?)

The frightening thing about labor soft money is that on the merits of the issues, the GOP is defenseless. What do you say to people who want the standard of living to rise? For 20 years the median wage has dropped, while the two parties have hauled in hundreds of millions from business groups.

Isn’t labor, with its soft money, seeking to raise the standard of living for those of us with W-2s, the closest thing we have now to a citizens’ party?