Labor's Cheap Thrill

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Nov. 2 1996 3:30 AM

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.

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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.

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