Labor unions in the United States today have never been less effective in
representing workers at the bargaining table. Today union membership is
about 12% of the work force. In historical terms, that is less then half
the membership unions had from the period of about 1950 to 1970.
Nonetheless, labor unions remain a powerful force in American society,
primarily because of their enormous influence on American politics. The
deep irony is that this is a break with tradition in the American labor
movement. One of the things that distinguished the American trade union
movement from its counterparts in Western Europe was that European unions
were intimately involved in the politics of their countries, actually
starting political parties, either socialist or social democratic in
But, traditionally, the labor movement in the United States chose not to
go that route-at least not until recently. Unlike their European
counterparts, unions in the U.S. were not hostile to free market
capitalism. In fact, they saw their role as obtaining a bigger share of
the fruits of free market capitalism for their members. Their primary role
was to represent their members at the bargaining table to increase wages
and improve working conditions for workers. Certainly at the beginning of
the American labor movement, unions were involved in these issues at a
time when government itself played little role in these issues, before
there were minimum wage or child labor laws or regulations to insure
safety on the job.
But in recent years, the labor movement has shifted its focus,
concentrating not just on collective bargaining issues but becoming much
more heavily involved with partisan politics. This shift occurred largely
because the labor movement itself changed from a membership made up
exclusively of private sector employees to one which is now dominated by
public sector workers. Labor unions did not begin to begin to organize
public sector employees until late in its history. The AFL itself early on
opposed the unionization of public employees, refusing to accept public
sector unions into its fold. The AFL did not change its position until
1960. As late as 1959 AFL-CIO president George Meany argued against
attempting to unionize government employees. But today, the AFL-CIO is
made up disproportionately of public employees. About 40% of all union
members today are government workers, and virtually all of the growth in
new membership comes from public sector.
The increasing reliance on the public sector for union membership and the
increasing drive to organize within the public sector has had a tremendous
impact on the labor movement's political involvement. With the passage of
federal labor laws, unions became much more reliant on the courts. Since
federal judges are appointed by the President, unions began to have a very
direct stake in the outcome of presidential elections. One of the first
battles over a court nomination was when President Nixon nominated Clement
Haynesworth. It was the AFL-CIO that led the charge against the
Haynesworth nomination. That nomination was defeated on a trivial ethical
question, even though he was a very distinctive jurist. The AFL-CIO was
also involved in fighting the nomination of William Rehnquist for Chief
Justice for the Supreme Court. They opposed the nomination of Antonin
Scalia and Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.
Unions have also played a very active roll in legislation directly
effecting union's organizing, collective bargaining, and strike activity.
But, ironically, despite their growing influence in politics, they have
been less effective in pushing their own legislative agenda on strictly
union-related issues than on a whole host of other social issues quite
outside the usual labor purview.
Often working with other left-of-center groups in the feminist and civil
rights movement, for example, the AFL- CIO has taken on issues and
positions at odds with traditional labor union positions. The AFL-CIO was
a very strong critic against quotas in employment in the 1960s and 70s.
While the AFL-CIO endorsed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they were adamantly
opposed to the use of quotas and worked to ensure that the legislation in
1964 had language in it that would prohibit quotas. One or the biggest
fights the AFL-CIO waged during the Nixon administration was the fight
against the so called Philadelphia Plan. This was the first effort on the
part of the federal government to tell employers and, in this instance,
labor unions that they had to hire a certain percentage of their workers
or bring into their apprenticeship programs a certain percentage of
workers who were black.
The AFL-CIO's mistrust of racial quotas also caused a rift with the
Democratic Party in 1972. That year was a watershed for the Democratic
Party, which lurched very far to the left with the nomination of George
McGovern as the party's candidate for president.
One of the things the Democrats did in 1972 was to mandate quotas in the
selection of delegates to the party convention, insisting that half the
delegates to the convention be female, and that minorities be
proportionately represented. The AFL-CIO, which was made up predominantly
of white males understood that these rules would diminish the influence of
Al Barkan, the Director of the AFL-CIO's Committee On Political Education,
privately railed against what he saw as the influence of feminists, some
of the civil rights organizations, and gays, within the Democratic Party.
You would never see that fight today. Now there is no daylight between the
Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO. They are virtually indistinguishable in
their goals. More importantly, unions have become extremely active within
the Democratic Party, becoming the major force in the party. Not only did
unions raise and donate approximately $75 million in the last election
cycle, through political action committees and through soft money
donations directly to the political parties. They spent exponentially more
through various soft money donations. Legally, labor unions are allowed to
spend treasury funds, that is the dues that come from members, on
political activity that is supposed to be directed at their own members or
to their members families. They are not allowed by law to simply use union
dues to become adjuncts of either political candidates or their party. But
again from personal experience I can tell you that these legal niceties
are honored more in the breach then they are in following of the letter of
When I was with the American Federation of Teachers, it was quite routine
for the AFT to publish campaign literature on behalf of candidates. Rather
then simply doing a print run equal the number of members or the number of
members households they would often print twice as many fliers or
pamphlets as they had union members in a given state. And somehow those
extra pamphlets or newspapers or other campaign literature would find
their way to candidates' headquarters.
AFT phone banks were operated out of union headquarters. Union staff on
salary, paid for with tax deductible union dues, would make telephone
calls supporting AFT endorsed candidates. That is perfectly legal so long
as the calls are being made to union households on behalf of a candidate
that was endorsed. But I saw many instances of such telephone banks being
used by political candidates and they were using lists that had been
provided by the candidate of all voters.
In addition, union-paid staff can be dispensed to work in campaigns or to
work for parties, and this is done quite routinely. Again, there is
nothing illegal about that so long as the role of that staff person is to
contact union households, and it doesn't even have to be the particular
union the person works for. They can contact other union households but
their activities are supposed to be directed exclusively to union members
or their families. Of course, unions routinely violate this law as well.
And there are estimates that the amount of money spent on these kinds of
activities may go as high as $500 million during the last election cycle.
What union political dollars buy
It has had a dramatic impact in terms of union turn-out on election day,
for one thing. And certainly this election is a prime example of the
effectiveness of the AFL-CIO constituent unions in getting out the labor
vote. Even though labor unions represent only 12% of workers in the United
States, presumably about the same equivalent of union households, twice as
many voters who went to polls in November were from union households.
About one fourth of all voters in the last election came from union house-
holds. In some states it was even more dramatic.
In Michigan, 43% of the votes that were cast were from union households.
So this expenditure of union dues in turning out the vote has had a
tremendous effect on elections. Not surprisingly when you are able to turn
out those members and when you can command that kind of money to
contribute to candidates' parties and political action it's going to have
some impact come time to write legislation and to playa role in terms of
setting the political agenda.
Despite this political influence on the part of labor unions, they've
actually been less effective then you might imagine. Even in the 1970's,
when Jimmy Carter was President and the Congress was controlled by the
Democrats, the AFL-CIO was not able to push through Congress a so-called
"labor law reform" package of legislative changes which would have made it
easier for unions to organize and hold elections.
What the labor movement has been very effective at doing, however is
promoting a general left-wing social agenda. They have been able to do
that in part because they don't work alone any longer. George Meany was
very interested in separating the interests of the labor movement and
ensuring that the labor unions represent their members first and foremost
and only joined in some coalitions where there was some common interest.
The AFL-CIO under John Sweeney has taken a very different tact. Now it is
not uncommon to see the unions working side by side and providing a lot of
the money, resources, and manpower for the legislative agenda of groups
like Jesse Jackson's Operation Push. As a result, the legislative agenda
of the AFL-CIO changed dramatically. The AFL-CIO is not just involved in
traditional union issues like minimum wage or occupational safety for
their workers. They are involved in issues like pay equity.
Pay equity in many ways ought to be anathema to labor unions. Pay equity
after all substitutes for collective bargaining an administrative wage
setting mechanisms in the private as well as in the public sector. It is
premised on the idea that you have to try to equalize wages between jobs
held predominately by men or women, for example between truck drivers and
secretaries. In the 1980s several municipalities passed pay equity laws.
In San Jose, California, for example, when pay equity was passed it cause
many unintended consequences. What happened was that wages for jobs like
electricians, held predominantly by men, were frozen. And wages for
secretaries, librarians, and other kinds of clerical workers, which were
predominately female, increased. Very quickly, San Jose found it couldn't
attract electricians and began attracting better qualified males in
clerical positions. The unintended consequences were a shortage in skilled
workers in some areas and an excess in others. Ultimately, the city began
paying bonuses to anyone who would work as an electrician, thus undoing
the whole premise of "pay equity." When you freeze wages and they become
uncompetitive, people flee those jobs and seek better paying jobs in the
private sector. So it would seem that this kind of legislation would be
anathema to the interests of union members, but the AFL-CIO fights for it
nonetheless because the labor movement is now part of the broad left-wing
sector within the Democratic Party.
What Can Be Done?
Certainly union members ought to be able to give and support the
candidates they choose. There is nothing wrong with voluntary political
action or giving and I would be the last person in the world to object to
it. I'm not suggesting that political action committees for unions that
collect voluntary funds ought to be prohibited from doing so or ought to
be in any way impeded in making donations to candidates. As far as I'm
concerned they should be able to make donations to candidates and there
should not even be limited on those donations, so long as unions are
treated exactly the same way as other organizations are.
What I am talking about is control of soft money donations and having the
same kinds of controls there in terms of making sure that we have full
disclosure of the money that is given. But more importantly, we must
monitor how union dues are spent, since in many cases union dues are not
really voluntary. If you want a job in a unionized industry to be able to
draw a paycheck, even though you don't have to join the union you do have
to pay what is called an agency shop fee, which usually comes out to be
exactly what the union dues are anyway.
We need to prevent treasury dues that are not voluntary being spent on
political action and spent secretly.
President Bush has announced that he is issuing an executive order that
will enforce a decision that was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1988
which makes it a requirement for federal contractors to post on the job
site the right of any individual to ask for a return of that portion of
their agency shop dues that have been used for political action. Not only
would this provision force union to give back money to individuals who
don't want it spent on politics, but it would require unions to engage
more strict bookkeeping and it would make it easier to monitor how in fact
unions spend dues.
But this isn't enough. There is a certain amount that can be done at the
Federal level. There is a certain amount that can be done by the
President, but I think there needs to be far more done from the outside as
well, especial in terms of monitoring union activity. We should in fact
have a mechanism set up to monitor what labor unions do and to make sure
that they are abiding by the Federal election laws in this country and
abiding by the tax laws, which gives unions tax exempt status and allow
union members to deduct their union dues. It is my intention now that I am
not going to be the Secretary of Labor that I will nonetheless spend time
on these issues, and will in fact be announcing shortly the formation of a
new organization whose purpose will be to engage in this kind of
The point is not to prohibit labor unions from their legitimate function,
which is representing workers at the collective bargaining table, but
rather to make sure that they do not have undue or illegal influence in
the political process.
If we are successful in that, not only will it be help reform our
political system, but it will help working men and women of this country,
including union members. A labor movement that is inextricably tied to one
party, the Democratic Party, and wields enormous influence over the
election of members of Congress and the legislative agenda they then pass
deserves greater scrutiny. And if that scrutiny reveals that laws are
being broken or regulations flouted, we need to press for proper law
enforcement. This is why I intend to form a new organization called Stop
Union Political Abuse. And I need your help in this endeavor.
Linda Chavez was President George W. Bush's first
pick to be Secretary of Labor, but withdrew her name after a bitter
campaign against her nomination. She served as Director of the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights in the Reagan Administration. This article was
adopted from a speech to The Heritage Foundation.