An address by Reed Larson
President, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation
Delivered to Hillsdale College
September 15, 1999
Twenty years ago, I could shock a university or college audience by saying that the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, tramples, rather than protects, the rights of America’s working people. Such an opinion was pure heresy.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of members of the National Right to Work Committee, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and many talented journalists and labor economists, this view is no longer considered shocking, even in the world of academia.
But one thing has not changed, the billions of dollars collected through government-authorized compulsory unionism still provides the fuel that drives the liberal political machine. Without the disproportionate political muscle of union officials, gained through government-granted coercive power, all our battles against the flood-tide of tax and spend, big government schemes could be won hands down.
REMEMBER THAT!! (REPEAT)
I want to tell you today about some of the progress we’re making in cutting off the flow of forced dues money with which union officials fund their attacks on your freedom.
Right to Work proponents are making progress in the court system, which I’ll talk about later, and on Capitol Hill. Support has greatly increased in Congress for the National Right to Work Act, which would repeal provisions in the NLRA and other federal labor laws that empower union bosses to force workers to pay dues or so-called agency “fees” in order to get a job. Just a few short years ago, even getting committee hearings on these proposals, much less securing passage in either chamber of Congress was not taken seriously by Inside-the-Beltway elitists. But as I speak, nearly a third of House members are cosponsors, and dozens of other members have pledged to vote for the bill when it comes to the floor. And every year sees the addition of more and more cosponsors in the House and Senate.
Congress is now heading – albeit grudgingly – where most citizens have been for a long time. Americans – nearly 80% according to recent polling data – understand that it’s just plain WRONG to force someone to pay tribute to an unwanted union in order to get or keep a job.
But few understand the far-reaching consequences of government-authorized forced unionism. It’s an abusive system that affects the lives of every one of us.
You see, Congress made Organized Labor into a political juggernaut by giving it the power to get workers fired for refusal to pay union dues. That allows union officials to draw in billions and billions of dollars every year, which they use to bend the political system to their will. And elected officials in nearly half the 50 states have compounded that mistake by extending union bosses’ forced-dues privileges to state and local public employment, including most public schools.
Way back in 1955, nearly 45 years ago, AFL-CIO president George Meaney set the new direction for the union movement when he declared, “The scene of battle is no longer the company plant or the picket line; it has moved to the legislative halls of Congress and the state legislatures.” And every year since that time, union officials, despite decreasing membership numbers in the private sector, have collected more compulsory dues and poured more of it into legislative action year by year by year.
While he was New York mayor, Ed Koch (pronounced KOTCH) described how union bosses decide which politicians to support with workers’ forced dues. He said, “The labor unions… don’t care if you’re Attila the Hun as long as you do what they want.” Ohio AFL-CIO officials recently confirmed the correctness of Mr. Koch’s observation when they urged, albeit unsuccessfully, T.V.’s king of crudeness, Jerry Springer, to run for the U.S. Senate.
It’s a vicious cycle. Government empowers union kingpins to force workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. Union bosses then turn around and use that money to campaign for their hand-picked politicians – the ones who agree to do what they want — which means above all, to perpetuate the agenda of forced unionism. The very concept is rife with corruption.
Here’s one reason why everyone here should be concerned about Big Labor’s ability to use compulsory-dues money to benefit its favorite politicians. Your wallet. The union political machine is the number one reason why Washington, if it acts at all, will pass a tax cut this fall devoid of fairness to American taxpayers, or benefit to the economy, but shaped to blunt the furious opposition of the union political machine. The overall tax burden, as a percentage of income, is the highest it’s ever been in peacetime. Federal tax receipts have jumped 49% since 1992. And its no coincidence that the growth in government spending has accompanied a continuing expansion of union control over government workers. Today, 43% of government workers are subject to union monopoly bargaining contracts — and many are compelled to pay dues as a condition of employment.
So Organized Labor has a vested interest in seeing the government payroll expand; a larger payroll means more union dues. For the union boss, bigger government not only resonates with his own political instincts, but it means more actual money in his coffers. So bigger government is what we’re getting.
The union political machine is also the number one reason why most state legislatures are unable to implement significant education reforms. Why? Because reforms such as vouchers would diminish the number of union-dues-paying public school teachers. Even though overwhelming evidence shows that our under-performing, Big Labor-controlled public schools are jeopardizing our children’s future, teacher union kingpins funnel millions into political campaigns so that they can maintain the status quo.
To take just one more example, the union political machine is the number one reason why Washington is likely for the foreseeable future to continue imposing heavy disincentives that hinder Americans from shoring up their private savings for retirement and health care, even though Social Security and Medicare are headed for disaster.
Big Labor officials demand the American taxpayer be forced to pay more and more money into these huge government bureaucracies, which will nonetheless offer lower and lower benefits to future generations of workers.
In fact, as long as federally-imposed compulsory unionism remains in place, it will be extremely difficult — if not impossible — to achieve any substantial change for the better on these issues and many others.
Let me show you what I mean.
UNION BOSSES USE FORCED DUES TO SUBVERT THE POLITICAL PROCESS
The union hierarchy, operating on billions of dollars plucked from workers’ paychecks, comprises a political machine unmatched by any other in America – a political machine whose philosophy consistently lines up with the socialist fringe in its assault on the rights of individual citizens to live their lives free of government intervention.
Since the 1930s, union officials in this country have enjoyed an astonishing array of government-granted coercive powers and legal immunities. But the two most egregious privileges provided by the National Labor Relations Act are those that authorize unions to force nonmembers to accept union officers as their surrogates at the bargaining table, and then to pay money to the unwanted union as a condition of employment. In other words, forced dues for forced representation.
Department of Labor reports reveal that private-sector union income alone is nearly $14 billion per year. And that figure does not include income for such unions as the National Education Association teacher union – the nation’s largest labor union by a wide margin, with annual dues income of well over a billion dollars a year. Over 80% of all private sector union contracts authorize union officials to force each worker to pay dues as a condition of employment.
We hear a lot about the decline in private sector union membership, much of which has occurred during a period when public sector union membership figures were mushrooming. What you don’t hear is that, while private sector union membership numbers are going down, total union income has been going up year by year, at a rate far exceeding inflation. And, continuing the course set by George Meany 45 years ago, more and more of those resources are being poured into politics. Private-sector union staff salaries alone exceed $2.4 billion a year. This $10- million-a-day payroll produces a highly politicized nationwide staff network made up of tens of thousands of full-time and part-time union officers and employees – a veritable political army whose attention turns primarily to politics for weeks, or even months, before each election.
In election season, union officials admit to devoting all or most of their staff resources to partisan “get out the vote” drives, boiler-room phone banks, and other political activities. In other words, they assign salaried union staff members to campaigns for full-time partisan political work – while they still draw a union paycheck – funded almost 100% by compulsory union dues.
Nearly all national unions maintain large national staffs and armies of field organizers, all trained extensively in nuts-and-bolts politicking.
Since the diversion of this 2.4 billion-dollar-a-year union staff and other union resources as “in-kind” political contributions is largely unregulated and unreported, its cost can only be roughly estimated. However, in 1996, Leo Troy, the distinguished Rutgers University professor of economics, testified before the House Oversight Committee and revealed that total unreported union-boss money funneled into federal elections in presidential campaign years is as high as $500 million – ten times the reported union PAC contributions and nearly THREE TIMES the reported political contributions by all non-union PACs put together.
For the 1998 elections, the AFL-CIO, by its own admission, sent over 9.5 million pieces of political direct mail, made over 5.5 million phone calls on behalf of its hand-picked candidates, and paid over 400 full-time “coordinators” to work on behalf of partisan campaigns. All of this was funded with forced-dues money. And this effort by the parent union was multiplied by those of the AFL-CIO’s 84-affiliated national unions.
And what are union officials buying with all that money? They are getting more regulation of every facet of your life; more tax and spend big government, and more government control, paid for with your tax dollars.
An examination of the AFL-CIO’s legislative agenda confirms that union officials are profoundly hostile to the free enterprise system. They have lobbied for, among other things, broad-based government price and wage fixing, the Clinton health care scheme, and a panoply of tax increases for businesses and individuals. Gutting the successful wave of state and federal welfare reforms in the mid-90’s has been a top union objective.
Additionally, union lobbyists are among the strongest backers of the array of business-harassing regulatory schemes that are smothering small businesses across America under mountains of federally- imposed paperwork.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear. We’re not going to rid ourselves of excessive taxation and government red tape until we follow the money… and a huge portion of the money propping up the statist agenda in America is taken by force from workers as a condition of employment.
Until Congress revokes – or the courts overturn – union officials’ license to extort dues money from workers, regulation-happy politicians will continue to have the means to advance their war against the rights of the individual.
CONGRESS SLOW TO STAND UP TO UNION OFFICIALS’ POLITICAL MUSCLE
As I noted before, most Americans, including a majority of union members, express themselves in public opinion surveys as opposed to compulsory unionism. We have reputable surveys going back over 50 years showing solid majorities of Americans support the principle of Right to Work, with the figure today reaching nearly 80%. But a union-intimidated Congress has, until very recently, refused even to consider legislation that would restore any employee rights.
Up to now, it’s been union boss political clout, not the wishes of the average voter, which strikes fear into the hearts of too many weak-kneed members of Congress. For decades, survey after survey found that the public wanted the coercive power of union officers curbed, not expanded. Yet, until a few years ago, union lobbyists could secure House passage of virtually any measure they could concoct to expand their coercive power over workers. Right to Work supporters often had to rely on a Senate filibuster or, at times, a presidential veto, to stem the tide of expanding union power.
Congress showed its willingness to vote for the union hierarchy’s legislative agenda on issue after issue, whether it was the so-called Motor Voter Bill or government-mandated family leave. And of course, until the decade of the 90’s, Congress steadfastly refused even to consider repeal of special privileges that enable unions to confiscate dues against the will of the worker, flying in the face of an overwhelming majority of the American public.
Most of the successes of the Right to Work movement over the past 45 years have been measured in terms of successful defensive battles – battles to defeat demands by union officials for MORE government-granted coercive power.
Those successful defensive battles to prevent the expansion of union coercive power have been many – often with little or no help from the nominally pro-Right to Work Washington associations representing American business.
Here are just a few of the bench marks of Right to Work success on the defensive front:
1965-66, protecting the right of states to prohibit compulsory unionism, thereby shielding themselves from union coercion embedded in federal law;
1970, defeating the Nixon Administration deal with George Meany to install forced dues in the post office, thus paving the way for compulsory dues throughout the federal government;
1975, the so-called common situs picketing bill which would have returned total control of U.S. construction to the bosses of organized labor;
1978, defeating Jimmy Carter’s so-called labor law reform bill, actually designed to herd hundreds of thousands of additional workers into compulsory unionism;
1994, defeat of the cleverly designed Striker Replacement Bill, which would have destroyed an employer’s ability to resist compulsory unionism for his employees;
And on and on….
Today, 21 states have acted under the authority protected by Section 14(b) of the National Labor Relations Act – just 44 words in federal law – to protect their citizens from compulsory unionism imposed by federal law.
Those popular state laws have withstood the furious repeal attempts by union officials pouring millions of millions of forced dues money into drives to repeal those laws. And those 21 states have, to a large extent, become the engine of prosperity driving the whole nation’s economy.
In 1970, just over 25% of private sector employees worked in Right to Work states. By the beginning of this decade, job growth in Right to Work states raised this to nearly 35% – and by the turn of the millennium, it will be close to 40%. People who live and work in Right to Work states have a special appreciation for the freedom those laws protect. The job-creating climate of Right to Work laws has acted as a magnet on the population. And as their share of the national population has increased, those states have become a formidable voting block.
So, as you can see, Section 14(b) and its protection of state Right to Work laws has provided an important safety valve to limit the damage done to our country by bad federal labor policy.
But states should not need to pass Right to Work laws to protect themselves from that bad policy. Furthermore, the reach of State Right to Work laws is limited. For example, it cannot protect employees in railroad or airline employment, covered by the Railway Labor Act; employees working on federal enclaves; employees with the federal government, and Right to Work laws cannot address forced representation — the union’s monopoly bargaining privilege.
So what we’ve seen here in the Committee’s fight against forced unionism is a successful 45-year battle against the impact of bad federal labor policy. We have, across the board, thwarted union officials in their various attempts to make a bad situation worse.
We’ve mobilized that great universe of Americans who know inherently that it’s wrong to fire an individual for refusing to pay dues to any private organization.
But the really big job lies ahead. That job is to get at the root of the problem – the federal policy which institutionalizes union coercion. In fact, a well-known American summarized the problem more than 30 years ago when the now famous Robert Bork was a relatively obscure college professor. Here’s how he described our national labor policy: “Our labor law, and the ideology that supports and suffuses it, encourages the organization of employees into fighting groups, and lets the wage bargain depend on the outcome of the fight. The rhetoric of union organization and struggle is the rhetoric of war.”
No one has described it better.
Our job now – yours and mine – is to attack that package of federal legal privileges that has crowned union bosses into political king makers. Attacking this entrenched status quo is going to be even more difficult than any previous achievement by Right to Work advocates.
AMERICA’S NATIONAL LABOR LAW RESTS ON FAULTY FOUNDATION
We need to understand that existing federal labor policy was not designed to be even-handed. It is based on the premise that the public interest is best served by collectivizing working people – by forcibly organizing them into unions. As a result, labor law is written to place the power of government on the side of the union organizer and against the independent citizen.
The assumption is that union organizers must be given by government whatever coercive powers are necessary to ensure their success in herding employees into collective groups.
Even with private sector unions diminished from their peak numerical strength, today under federal law 10 million employees are forced to accept a union as their sole bargaining agent, and 8 million are forced to pay dues or fees totaling $6 billion a year into the coffers of union bosses. And the abuse of this power goes far beyond politics.
For example, Irving Kaufman, who was chairman of the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, conducted an investigation into the links between labor unions and criminal activity. “It is clear from the evidence that millions of working men and women who look to labor unions to safeguard their economic security are not having their expectations fulfilled.”
In fact, a U.S. Labor Department investigation found that over 400 labor organizations are associated, influenced, or controlled by organized crime.
It will come as no surprise to many of you that economist Friedrich von Hayek, the late Nobel Laureate, recognized the problem decades ago. He declared that, unless there is a fundamental change in the policies that promote compulsory unionism, other needed governmental reforms will be eternally stymied.
Hayek wrote, “Public policy concerning labor unions has, in little more than a century, moved from one extreme to the other. From a state in which little the unions could do was legal if they were not prohibited altogether, we have now reached a state where they have become uniquely privileged institutions to which the general rules of law do not apply.”
He was addressing the weakness that then afflicted Conservative politicians in Britain, but it certainly applies in this country today. Our own conservative elected officials often rail against the loss of personal freedoms and the growth of stifling government, but too many avoid facing up to the root problem of illicit union power. They still lack the wisdom or the intestinal fortitude to discern that this is a necessary step for achieving other reforms.
Once we concede to union officials the power to cut off a working American’s bread, we are conceding the power ultimately to control his or her life, while giving union officials the means with which to dictate public policy.
NLRA PREAMBLE A CYNICAL EXERCISE IN LEGISLATIVE DECEPTION
What I’ve presented so far is a broad outline concerning government-granted union privileges and coercive power. Now I’d like to take a closer look at some of the specifics of the National Labor Relations Act. To begin, let’s examine the high-sounding preamble setting forth the act’s supposed dedication to employee freedom and the right to refrain from any or all union activities.
This preamble contains what must have been calculated to be some of the most misleading language human beings could assemble. For example, let me read the opening portion of Section 7, titled, “Rights of Employees”:
“Employees shall have the right to self-organization to form, join or
assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives
of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the
purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and
shall also have the right to refrain from any or all such activities…”
Now what could be fairer than that? The authors of this legislation wrote this passage with the goal of passing off the entire law as a Magna Carta of rights and freedoms of America’s working people. That deception was one of the most successful in our nation’s history.
But when I just quoted that key section, I left off the next 21 words beginning with the word “except.”
Employees, the law says, shall have full freedom to enjoy all these rights including the right to refrain, “except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring union membership as a condition of employment…”
In other words, everybody has the absolute right to refrain, except when we say you don’t! That exception provides what has to be one of the most cynical exercises in legislative deception on record, perpetrated by politicians who piously proclaimed their devotion to civil liberties while callously kicking employee rights in the teeth.
Under the NLRA, employees have full freedom of choice, except that they don’t have any freedom at all where compulsory unionism is concerned! They will be fired from their jobs if they refuse to support an unwanted union. So much for freedom of choice!
As a matter of fact, one of the tactical problems we face today is that some of supposedly “conservative” Republicans who have belatedly become signed on in the fight against union abuse steadfastly refuse to attack that vital exception to employee freedom. They want to preserve the language that employee freedoms are subordinate to “agreements requiring union membership as a condition of employment.” Instead, they are mounting campaigns often labeled “paycheck protection,” designed to use bureaucratic rules in attacking the very abuses that grow out of that simple exception. In other words, they want to keep compulsory unionism while trusting bureaucrats regulate its consequences.
I don’t think I need to explain to this audience the shortcomings of this approach.
RIGHT TO WORK LEGAL DEFENSE FOUNDATION FIGHTS COMPULSORY UNIONISM ABUSE
The National Right to Work Committee is fighting tirelessly for legislation to repeal the handful of NLRA and Railway Labor Act provisions that authorize forced union dues and fees.
Another front in the fight against forced unionism is in the courts. That battle is led by the Committee’s sister organization, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
Since the formation of the Foundation in 1968, America’s beleaguered workers whose rights have been violated by compulsory unionism have had an organization solely dedicated to providing them with free legal assistance. We’ve put together a top-notch legal staff recognized as the country’s leading experts in litigation involving forced unionism.
The Foundation is now one of the nation’s largest legal aid organizations, and one of the bright spots in the struggle to maintain individual liberty in America. Today, a dozen full time staff Foundation attorneys are representing tens of thousands of employees in almost 500 cases nationwide.
Although the nation’s labor law remains heavily stacked in favor of the union organizer and against employees, the Foundation is making steady progress in the courts, restoring a measure of balance.
Perhaps the best-known case fought by the Foundation was that of a telephone lineman named Harry Beck. Harry Beck and his Foundation attorneys labored for 12 years through lower courts and legal red tape to make one request of the U.S. Supreme Court: that his wages not be confiscated by union officials to spend on politics with which he disagreed.
The High Court’s decision in Communications Workers of America v. Beck was an important victory for worker freedom.
In Beck, a 5-3 Court majority vindicated the right of working Americans to refuse to pay forced dues for politics, lobbying, public relations, extra-unit litigation, union organizing, and more. A special master appointed by the trial court found the union could only prove 21% of Harry Beck’s dues were used for purposes permitted under its reading of the law. This fact entitled Mr. Beck and his co-plaintiffs to a refund of the remaining 79% of the money which union bosses had illegally seized from their paychecks.
But even though the Supreme Court spoke clearly on this issue, union bosses have instituted an array of schemes and machinations designed to skirt the Beck decision.
Last year, the Foundation triumphed again before the U.S. Supreme Court in Air Line Pilots Association v. Miller, a case aimed at closing one of the attempted union loopholes around Beck. Union officials had established phony, union-orchestrated “arbitration” schemes to block the full impact of the Beck decision, requiring workers to go through a prohibitively expensive and time-consuming process to challenge the amount of the fees they are forced to pay. The Court ruled that union officials could no longer make such kangaroo court proceedings a prerequisite to genuine court action.
The Foundation also prevailed last year against another union-boss scheme which demands annual objections by workers to the use of their forced dues for politics. In International Association of Machinists v. Shea, a unanimous Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas ruled that union official requirements for an annual renewal were “designed … only to further the illegitimate interest of the [union].”
Time will not permit even a cursory review of the range of the Foundation’s work, but let me enumerate just a few of our other present and past cases.
We’re helping six union-abused workers from Virginia in a case in which it has been revealed that union officials condoned and authorized brutal violence. In addition to the all-too-common window breaking, slashed tires, and death threats, one victim left her house one morning to find a severed, bloody cow’s head on the hood of her car. A union militant, testifying on condition of immunity from prosecution, has spoken about union officials’ complicity in plans to build a pipe bomb and other tools of violence.
We’re helping a painter in Ohio who was fined over $32,000 by his local union, merely because he resigned his union membership.
We defended three young ladies in California who, when they tried to get jobs as waitresses to earn college expenses, were told by the union agent they could not get jobs unless they also engaged in the prostitution business he ran as a sideline. In fact, their harrowing experience was the subject of a Reader’s Digest story.
We helped Texas oil worker Bill Hinote in his ordeal against Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers local union officials, who paid a $1.2 million judgment for their role in orchestrating and ratifying a violent campaign against him. At its climax, Hinote’s wife and daughter were harassed into hiding, and a thug shot five rounds of ammunition into him, leaving him for dead. This worker was punished for the “crime” of going to work to feed his family after nine debilitating months of following union boss strike orders.
We successfully represented two Washington state teachers who were frivolously sued for having the audacity to inform their colleagues how to exercise their Foundation-won rights to refrain from subsidizing union political activities.
In fact, we’re helping workers all across the country who have been fired simply for trying to exercise their rights in deciding whether or not to join a union.
Although the Foundation has established a number of important Supreme Court precedents protecting the rights of workers, Organized Labor’s high command uses its political power to evade and defy these rulings to the fullest extent it can. That’s why a regulatory, bureaucratic approach – like the enactment of good sounding but toothless “paycheck protection” laws which have unsuccessfully attempted to solve the problem of forced-dues politicking – is doomed to fail.
The one way to break that power is to strike at its source: the outrageous privilege of forcing workers to pay union dues under threat of losing their jobs, their paychecks, their careers, and their dreams.
That’s why the Right to Work Committee is working tirelessly to enact a National Right to Work law, to deny union officials the power to force any private-sector worker to pay union dues to keep a job. And that’s why the Legal Defense Foundation is working toward a Supreme Court ruling that completely throws out compulsory unionism as unconstitutional.
FREEDOM OF CHOICE MUST BE RETURNED TO AMERICA’S WORKERS
Unless we deal with this fundamental injustice, all of the valiant efforts to prevent our country from being engulfed in a flood-tide of leftist social engineering are destined to failure. The special coercive privileges enjoyed by union officials under federal law have enabled them to amass a degree of political power behind their collectivist schemes that no other special interest comes close to matching. Their power to dictate public policy is out of all proportion to the number of persons whose views they truly represent.
Whatever your concern, whether it be taxes, education, health care, the economy, or myriad other issues that need addressing, you can be assured that the propagation of the statist, anti-freedom position on each of those issues is being funded largely with union money, essentially seized at gun point from workers.
There is not much about which I and most Big Labor bosses would concur. But former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who passed away last month, once said this:
“I have slowly come to the conviction that we might be better off if we deregulated labor legislation – just simply did away with the NLRB, did away with the Taft-Hartley Act, did away with all of it.”
In this instance, I couldn’t agree with him more.