Safeguarding Political Choice Benefits Members and Labor Unions

By Dudley Rochelle and Jack Lambremont

Some labor organizations see a conspiracy in calls to create safeguards that would prevent unions in Georgia from improperly using their members’ dues to fund political activity. But it is merely common sense to require labor organizations not covered by federal labor laws to set up separate funds for political purposes – and to ensure there are aboveboard methods by which those labor organizations may solicit contributions for political use. 

So why is it common sense for unions to support such protections? Union membership is declining in Georgia, judging by numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics. In 2003, union membership was 249,000 strong, or 6.7 percent of the work force; in 2004, it dropped nearly 3 percent to 242,000, or 6.4 percent of the work force. With that in mind, labor unions ought to welcome an approach that offers a needed protection to workers who might accept union membership if they would not have to support the union’s political or politicized agenda.

To implement this, labor organizations would set up separate, segregated funds for political purposes. Each such fund would register with the state as a campaign committee and make its records available for inspection. Additionally, each such fund would be subjected to the same disclosure requirements as political candidates under Georgia law, including making specific filings with the Secretary of State.

Labor organizations that solicit contributions from their members should clearly and unambiguously disclose that the contribution is voluntary and will be used for political purposes. Members could refuse to contribute without fear of reprisal, including loss of union membership. At the same time, union dues should not be used for political purposes or commingled with the voluntarily contributed money in a political fund.

Such protections should reassure the broad class of Georgia workers who are members of labor organizations not subject to the National Labor Relations Act or the Railway Labor Act, the two primary federal laws governing labor relations in the private sector. These workers, including state and municipal employees as well as agricultural workers and domestic service employees, may wish to bargain collectively with their employers. At the same time, however, they may prefer not to support a union’s political agenda.

With such safeguards, these employees would not be forced to support political causes potentially at odds with their personal beliefs, and would not have their right to participate in labor organizations infringed.

The Georgia AFL-CIO has described proposals to enact such protections as “biased and unfair” unless they include chambers of commerce or trade associations. Labor unions, however, serve a completely different purpose than business organizations, and the ability of a union to exert influence over its members is substantial. And, notwithstanding labor’s opposition, there is no attempt to restrict a union’s right to solicit contributions for political purposes or to utilize the funds received to support the candidate of the union’s choice. All members should rightfully expect a labor organization to be forthright with its members when soliciting donations while protecting a member’s right to refuse to donate money without fear of reprisals.

A large segment of Georgia’s public sector workforce would be able to make educated decisions about whether to donate money to organized labor for political purposes. Such transparency for union members and others leads to accountability from labor unions, with reassurances that there is no mishandling or improper use of money for political objectives. All the while, employees may continue collective bargaining and supporting their labor unions. In sum, these safeguards benefit Georgia and Georgia’s workers without unfairly burdening organized labor.

Dudley Rochelle, a member of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Board of Governors, and Jack Lambremont are attorneys in the Atlanta office of Littler Mendelson, P.C. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 25, 2005). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and their affiliations are cited.

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