Why “Paycheck Protection” Is Bunk

George W. Bush has been saying that he doesn’t support comprehensive campaign reform without “paycheck protection.” In a Des Moines debate earlier this month, he told John McCain:

Here’s my worry with your [campaign reform] plan: It’s going to hurt the Republican party, John. The Democratic Party is really the Democratic Party and the labor unions in America. And my worry is, is that you do nothing about what’s called “paycheck protection.” We do nothing about saying to labor, you can’t take a laboring man’s money and spend it in the way you see fit.

As Bush made clearer than, perhaps, he meant to, his primary concern about political spending by unions isn’t that it rips off union members; it’s that it usually goes to Democrats. But let’s assume Bush had made a principled argument rather than a partisan one: Is it wrong for unions to spend union dues on politics without first getting the consent of each member?

Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and author of The Secret Lives of Citizens, told Chatterbox: Of course not. “What people don’t understand in this country,” he explained, is that “unions exist for political action.” When workers can’t get benefits from their bosses, he said, they try to get them from Congress. Social Security, for example, was “collectively bargained at the national level.” The irony, he pointed out, is that the vast majority of working Americans, who aren’t dues-paying union members, get a free ride whenever labor gets a bill passed that expands government benefits for union members and non-members alike. You might call it paycheck protection in reverse. (To read a Slate article by Geoghegan elaborating on this argument, click here.)

But what if a union member happens to be a Republican, and doesn’t like seeing his dues spent to help elect Democrats or to expand government? This question was raised in 1968 by Harry Beck, a member of the Communications Workers of America, who sued his union because it was using his dues to help elect Hubert Humphrey (who lost, incidentally, even though labor was a much bigger force in American politics than it is today). In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that union members could demand a refund when their dues were used for political purposes against their wishes. But the decision didn’t make it easy in any practical sense for union members to get their money back, and the National Labor Relations Board dragged its heels for several years on the matter. In practice, usually the only way a union member could really get his union to stop using his dues for political purposes was by quitting the union.

Paycheck protection became a big conservative rallying cry after the 1996 election, because labor’s unexpectedly strong clout scared Republicans to death. Now some form of paycheck protection has been adopted in five states–Wyoming, Idaho, Washington state, Ohio (where it was later struck down in court), and Michigan. A California ballot initiative on paycheck protection in 1998 failed, slowing the movement’s momentum; no states adopted paycheck protection in 1999. But Oregon has a paycheck-protection measure on the ballot in 2000.

It’s instructive to examine one reason why paycheck protection failed in California: Opponents neutralized the business community by threatening to sponsor a similar measure requiring corporations to get stockholders’ permission before engaging in political activities. Jose Moreno, a spokesman for the opponents to the ballot initiative, explained to David Corn of The Nation that “a gentleman’s agreement was worked out” with the corporate community to lie low. Conservatives, naturally, have tried to argue that stockholders don’t merit the same rights bestowed on union members by paycheck-protection measures. (Isn’t it touching how much more conservatives care about working people than they do about Wall Street speculators?) Here is John Fund of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page making the case in 1997 in the Web magazine

Opponents of Paycheck Protection argue that it is not balanced unless stockholders are also given the right to vote on whether or not a corporation can make political expenditures. Once again, the Supreme Court has spoken definitively on this. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti in 1977 it noted: “The critical distinction here is that no shareholder has been ‘compelled’ to contribute anything. The shareholder invests in a corporation of his own volition and is free to withdraw his investment at any time and for any reason.” In most of the country, workers can be required to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.

But the point isn’t whether people who own stocks live more comfortable and independent lives than people who belong to unions; clearly, they do. The point is whether the same inconvenient principles of direct democracy that are used to inhibit labor should be used to inhibit capital. Clearly, they should–if not by the Supreme Court, then by the legislative branch, which (rightly) has a bit more leeway to decide how to achieve social justice.

As it happens, McCain says he supports both paycheck protection and “stockholder protection.” But Ron Nehring, director of national campaigns for Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that’s pushing paycheck protection very aggressively–and whose leader, Grover Norquist, has discussed the issue extensively with George W. Bush–says what McCain’s for isn’t really paycheck protection. Nehring says it’s mainly a codification of the 1988 Supreme Court decision, and wouldn’t put much more burden on unions to prove they’ve got members’ permission to spend money on political causes. In 1998, Sen. Don Nickles attached to a campaign-finance bill a paycheck-protection amendment that purported to require unions and corporations to get members and stockholders to sign off on political spending. But corporations enjoyed a huge loophole: The stockholders had to do so only if they were assessed special “dues or fees.” (If the loophole hadn’t been there, you can be sure Fortune 500 companies would have been out in force lobbying against it.) The amendment failed, as did the overall bill; and when the bill came up for a vote again this year, no similar amendment was offered. This suggests that paycheck protection will likely live on more as a rhetorical excuse for Republican opponents of campaign reform than as an actual cause.