Paycheck Protection Initiative:Giving Workers a Voice or Taking it Away?

Erica Olsen

The AFL-CIO is approaching this year’s mid-term election with a different strategy than employed in the half billion dollar failure to unseat congressional conservatives in 1996. Big Labor promises to use less in-your-face tactics and more carefully crafted messages aimed at specific groups, such as women. Beginning in April, union representatives will stage at least 1,000 rallies for working women nationwide—700 more than last year.

The AFL-CIO is also grooming its own candidates at its National Labor Political Training Center and hopes to have a least 2,000 ready by 2000. Further, unions are pouring millions of dollars into defeating pending state and national legislation that would restrict unions’ ability to spend membership dues for political action without members’ permission, generically called by supporters the Paycheck Protection Act.

How does the union plan on financing all of this activity? Another "special" assessment will be levied on all members’ paychecks in order to raise $15 million. Did rank-and-file union members vote on this assessment? No, the AFL-CIO executive council simply decided to raise union dues. Do members support this year’s political involvement and other political activity supported by their monthly dues? Who knows—polls suggest otherwise. But backers of the Paycheck Protection Act want to give workers a way to choose to contribute to the union’s political activity, or choose to keep funds that are now automatically deducted.

Here in Nevada, the initiative petition to put the Paycheck Protection Act on this November’s ballot has provoked much criticism. The threatened labor unions are calling it "a ploy to shut up Nevada workers," and the backers of the initiative are saying workers should decide between "political contributions and sneakers for our kids." Both sides claim to be giving a voice to the working class.

The Paycheck Protection Act

The Paycheck Protection Act would prohibit unions from using members’ dues for political action without their written consent. The state Republican Party, which introduced the initiative petition, needs to collect at least 46,764 signatures to put the issue to the voters in November. The 1999 Legislature would have to pass the initiative, or if it fails, it would be put to the voters again in 2000. A GOP poll conducted in January found that 70 percent of Nevadans supported the initiative. But an AFL-CIO poll says union members, by a 6-to-1 margin, want their unions to speak out in the political and legislative arenas.

In Other States

Overwhelming support for such initiatives is growing across the nation. California, Alaska, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado and several other states are also circulating a similar petition, to be voted on this election season. In California, enough signatures have already been collected to assure that the initiative will be on the state’s June primary ballot. No doubt, from the perspective of some union officials, the situation looks alarming.

"An Effort to Shut Up the Unions"

"When they say they are trying to protect union members, that’s an outright lie," says Danny Thompson, political director for the state AFL-CIO. "All this is, is an effort to spend our money and try to shut us up." But of course nobody is trying to "shut up" the union. The initiative would simply give each union member the right to make a choice. Interestingly enough, when Washington state teacher union members were given a choice, members who contributed to the political fund dropped from 45,000 to 8,000. The state employees union was hit even harder when its contributors went from 40,000 to 82. The initiative was passed by Washington voters in 1992.

The Initiative is Just a Partisan Issue

"The amendment is aimed straight at the fund-raising ability of organizations which usually support Democrats," reads a Reno Gazette-Journal editorial. Between $300 million and $400 million, estimated by former Teamster official Duke Zeller and other labor experts, was spent by labor unions on 1996 elections nationwide. Roughly $59 million in federal campaign contributions, including "soft money," was given to Democrats. About $4 million was contributed to Republicans. (See table for a breakdown by labor organization.) Labor unions are the single biggest contributor to the Democratic party. The money for their huge contributions comes from dues taken from workers’ paychecks.


Contrary to what is suggested by the union poll, over 58 percent of union members did not know that part of their dues went for political activity. By exploiting this worker ignorance, labor unions have become one of the most formidable special interest groups pushing an agenda most of the rank-and-file do not support. Over 40 percent of union members do not support the Democratic party, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, March 1997. This initiative is not an effort to shut unions up, nor is it a partisan issue. It is a disclosure issue. Right-to-work state or not, is it wrong for a worker who chooses to be part of the union also to get to make an informed decision? Workers have clearly indicated they want to know what agenda their money is being used to advocate and also to decide whether they wish to support it. Should worker freedom here remove major funding from one political party, so be it. Labor unions are supposed to exist to support workers—not the other way around.

Erica Olsen is a research analyst for NPRI.