by David Almasi
In 1996, Teamsters union members across America gave up to $195,000 to the campaign to legalize marijuana use in California. This money did not come from members who supported the ballot initiative, but from mandatory union dues earmarked for political activity.
At the time, Teamsters President Ron Carey was locked in a bitter reelection battle against James Hoffa, Jr. Teamsters officials and others involved in the transactions testified before a federal grand jury investigating Teamsters election irregularities that, in an effort to raise cash for Carey, approximately $885,000 in union funds were given to political groups that agreed to kick some of the money back to the Carey campaign. In this case, fundraiser Charles Blitz arranged for Teamsters dues money to benefit supporters of California's marijuana legalization initiative.
Allegedly illegal actions like this led the government to overturn Carey's victory and bar him from running again. The man charged with masterminding the contributions, former Teamsters political director William Hamilton, was just indicted on six felony charges. If convicted, Hamilton could face 30 years in jail and fines totaling $1.5 million. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not testify about his role in funneling another $200,000 of the Teamsters parent union's treasury to Carey.
If corruption charges aren't worrisome enough for organized labor, union leaders are also fighting "paycheck protection" legislation and ballot initiatives. Paycheck protection would require union leaders to get the permission of a member before using his or her mandatory dues for political activity. Organized labor's campaign against paycheck protection reveals distrust on the part of union leaders for the workers they claim to represent. That is unfortunate, since paycheck protection could be the best way to restore the failing integrity of the labor movement and its membership's trust in it.
To raise the money necessary to be politically viable, candidates and issue groups must make themselves appealing to potential donors. This is not the case with organized labor. Union leaders simply approve an increase in member dues to collect money for political action. In the case of the Teamsters, this unchecked process allowed the union's political treasury to be misused to help the campaign of the union's sitting president. It also resulted in a donation to a cause many Teamsters most likely find objectionable.
Although the Teamsters scandal shows how little influence rank-and-file union members have over how their dues are spent, union leaders claim paycheck protection will harm workers by "severely limiting their ability to contribute" to political activity. To the contrary, paycheck protection gives workers total political freedom by allowing them the choice of pooling their contributions with a union's political action committee, making their own individual contributions or not contributing at all. The only people at risk of losing their political viability are union leaders whose agendas lack the respect and support of their membership.
In California, a paycheck protection initiative will appear on the state's June primary ballot. Organized labor is pouring tens of millions of dollars -- collected, ironically, from member dues nationwide -- into a campaign vilifying it. Union literature alleges paycheck protection would lead to raids on pension funds for the elderly, lower heath care standards and increase the chance of global warming. These allegations are false -- almost hilariously so. There is nothing in the paycheck protection initiative barring union members from the political process. An April Los Angeles Times poll found 59% of union members support the initiative.
This November, Oregon and Nevada voters will cast ballots on similar initiatives. Almost two dozen other states and Congress are also considering paycheck protection legislation or ballot initiatives.
While union leaders say they are outspent by business-related PACs, they fail to mention contributions to those PACs are voluntary. Business PACs also make bipartisan contributions and tend to favor incumbents and whichever party is in control of Congress. Organized labor, on the other hand, is squarely behind the Democratic Party. This forces the estimated 40% of union members who vote Republican to contribute money to candidates they are voting to defeat.
An April 1996 poll of union members commissioned by Americans for a Balanced Budget found members were loyal to local union leaders over their national counterparts by a margin of three to one. In addition, only 4% believed political action should be unions' main priority.
Paycheck protection is an easy and effective way to make national union leaders more responsive to members. Posed with the threat of losing their political war chest if they do not listen to members, union leaders will think twice before funding campaigns to legalize illicit drugs or exclusively back a single party when its membership is diverse.
The Teamsters election scandal demonstrates that union leaders totally control union political funds. Giving union members a choice in how this money in spent is not only fair, but also the easiest way to help the average worker send a message to their national representatives.
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David W. Almasi is the editor of the Political Money Monitor, a publication of The National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to DAlmasi@nationalcenter.org.