Last spring, as part of a package of controversial union reforms, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker gave government workers the right to opt out of paying union dues. Reformers have tried to encourage that right elsewhere, claiming that many union members aren’t happy with how their dues get spent—and that claim is bolstered by a recent poll. Taken over the summer by Harris Interactive, the poll found that 62 percent of Americans, and a remarkable 47 percent of respondents from union households, believe that union members don’t get their dues’ worth from their unions. One reason, clearly, for the dissatisfaction is the unions’ expensive investment in political campaigns. In the Harris poll, 60 percent of those in union households said that labor groups were too involved in politics; 72 percent of all Americans agreed.
These views suggest that many union members must really be unhappy about the staggering resources that unions pour into politics—or, better put, Democratic politics. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the dozen biggest unions have spent some $384 million on federal political campaigns alone over the last 20 years, and only 3 percent of that money has gone to Republicans. By contrast, about 40 percent of union members typically vote Republican.
Unions—especially government unions—have provoked further ire by venturing into political areas unrelated to members’ interests. Over the years, unions in California, for instance, have used members’ money to fund campaigns on issues ranging from abortion to immigrants’ rights. In one particularly notable case, unions spent some $2 million in 2008 to defeat Proposition 8, an initiative that defined marriage as an act between a man and a woman. An exit poll subsequently showed that 56 percent of voters in union households backed the initiative.
Surprisingly little union money goes toward representing workers on workplace issues. In California, government workers who don’t want their dues spent on political campaigns can ask to pay only an “agency fee,” which is supposed to include solely the cost of representing workers; the fee is typically about 55 percent of the full dues. Some experts think that the cost of representing workers is even less. The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk estimated in 2006 that the nation’s ten largest unions expended, on average, only about 30 percent of dues on representing workers.
Hoping to tap members’ discontent, reformers have tried to impose limits on how unions can spend dues. In the mid- and late 1990s, antiunion forces launched a dozen campaigns in states to enact so-called paycheck-protection laws, which required unions to ask members’ permission before spending their money on politics. Most of those efforts failed narrowly, including California’s Proposition 226 and Oregon’s Ballot Measure 59 in 1998. California taxpayer groups tried again in 2005 with Proposition 75, but it, too, went down to defeat. Labor and its allies expended a staggering $54 million to fight the initiative, outspending opponents by a ten-to-one margin.
Union leaders, who gain much of their political muscle from members’ resources, have good reason to fear such legislative reforms. In 2006, Sherk studied the five states—Idaho, Michigan, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming—that had enacted paycheck-protection requirements and estimated that they had cut union spending on politics in half in those states.
Until now, union members in most states have generally opposed paycheck protection. But the latest Harris poll suggests that attitudes toward big labor’s spending patterns are changing across America—including in union households.