Labor leaders have had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, politically speaking.
So bad, in fact, that they decided to throw a temper tantrum and partially boycott the Democratic National Convention — holding their own “shadow convention” in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Inspired by the anger labor officials felt over Democrats holding their nominating convention in North Carolina — a right-to-work state that is proudly the least unionized in the country — the “shadow convention” focused on labor issues that union officials think are being overlooked by the Democratic Party.
It wasn’t always this way. Big Labor and Democrats used to have a nearly unbreakable bond. The AFL-CIO even was kind enough to draft for President Obama a list of things it wanted him to do, titled “Priorities for Day 1.” Topping that list was reducing financial transparency for what unions did with their dues money. The administration happily obliged.
Unions also received lots of goodies in the president’s stimulus package and the health care reform bill. The stimulus package included mandates that union wages be paid on all federal construction jobs. The bill also included a $53.6 billion fund to prevent layoffs of public employees, who are heavily unionized. Additionally, Section 164 of the Affordable Care Act contains a provision to bail out mismanaged union health insurance funds to the tune of $10 billion.
President Obama even signed an executive order that rolled back requirements for employers to post employee guidance about how they could opt out of union dues that were used for lobbying or advocacy they don’t support.
In 2010, more than 93 percent of union financial support went to Democrats, even though, according to exit polls, 42 percent of union households voted Republican. Also in 2010, the AFL-CIO devoted one-sixth of its national budget to politics and lobbying even though, according to a national poll, 60 percent of union members object to their dues being spent in that manner. Numbers like this suggest there’s a fundamental disconnect between union leaders and their members.
Fortunately, union members can find hope in the Employee Rights Act (ERA), sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, and Rep. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican. The legislation extends guarantees to union members in the private sector to decide whether their dues money is spent for political purposes, otherwise known as “paycheck protection.”
While workers have the ability to recover dues spent for political purposes, unions often make it very difficult for them to exercise this right. Unions implement bureaucratic obstacles, such as accepting such requests just 30 days of the year, and often refuse to honor those requests unless workers file federal charges.
Employees are in growing agreement that today’s unions are treating them like piggy banks. It’s no surprise that, according to a recent poll conducted by ORC International, the ERA’s paycheck-protection provision commands the support of nearly 80 percent of union households.
Union leaders need to start looking out for the best interests of their members, not throwing expensive temper tantrums with members’ dues money by holding a separate convention because they didn’t get everything they wanted from Democrats. Unionized employees don’t deserve to have their hard-earned pay go to expenditures that they don’t support and that aren’t to their benefit. To turn the corner once and for all, power must be put back in the hands of employees — where it belongs.
Rick Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts (UnionFacts.com).