Opting Out of Unionization
In Wisconsin, public employees have a new right.


Katrina Trinko

Thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s new labor law, Wisconsin may just be the next state where union rolls start shrinking. If history’s any indication, plenty of government workers will eventually take advantage of their new ability to opt out of unionization and stop paying expensive union dues.

Surprised? You might be, thanks to the broad-strokes style of most media coverage of the political battle over the legislation. The teachers and other government workers protesting at the capitol were taken to be representative of state union workers as a whole.

But Walker’s hoping that they’re not — and that many government workers will be glad to stop paying dues. On an appearance on Fox News Sunday in February, he said, “If we’re going to ask our state and local workers who are doing a great job to pay a little bit more, to sacrifice, to help to balance this budget, we should also give them the flexibility [to chose whether they pay dues].”

Walker saw that as a significant cost-savings benefit for Wisconsin’s government workers, arguing that “for those members . . . who don’t want to be a part of the union . . . [and] don’t want that deduction each month out of the paycheck, they should be able to get that $500, $600, or in some cases $1,000 [per year] back that they can apply for their health care and their pension contribution.” Politifact, which skews liberal, rated Walker’s calculations of how much workers could save “mostly true” after contacting unions and finding out how much they charged members annually.

Making union membership or portions of union dues voluntary has a track record of resulting in fewer employees’ paying. Consider Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an executive order limiting collective bargaining for state workers. In 2005, when Daniels signed the order, 16,408 state employees belonged to the union. Now 1,490 do.

Looking at states where “paycheck protection” has passed shows a similar pattern. Paycheck protection prohibits state and local governments from automatically deducting a portion of their employees’ wages to finance a union’s political contributions. While Supreme Court rulings, including the 1988 decision Communication Workers v. Beck, have established that union workers cannot be forced to pay the portion of their dues that would finance political activity and lobbying by the unions, it can be very difficult in practice to get that exemption unless the state has paycheck protection in place.

In 2006, a Heritage Foundation analysis found that after paycheck protection was passed, public-sector union donations to candidates declined by about 40 to 50 percent. Take Utah, which passed paycheck protection in 2001. In the following year, donations from the Utah Education Association declined by 75 percent, while the Utah Public Employees Association donated nothing that year, according to the Utah Taxpayers Association. In 2005, the UEA reported that only 6.8 percent of teachers were donating to the political arm of the union, down from 68 percent before the law.

Or look at Idaho, where paycheck protection went into effect in 2009. In 2008, public-sector unions spent around $184,000, according to the data provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In 2010, they spent $157,000, a decrease of about 15 percent. Overall, public-sector unions accounted for just under 2 percent of the state’s campaign contributions that year, a drop from their 3.3 percent share in 2008.

Another sign that many union members likely aren’t happy with their forced unionization is the difference between union-membership rates in states with right-to-work laws, under which employees can refuse to join their companies’ unions or pay dues (though they’re still covered by the union contract), and in states without such laws. In right-to-work states, 6.5 percent of workers belong to a union, according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor. In the remaining states, the unionization rate is over twice that: 13.8 percent.

Polls also show that many union members disagree with Big Labor on politics. A March Rasmussen poll showed that 27 percent of public-sector union members consider themselves conservative and 17 percent Republican. The same month, a Gallup poll showed that between 24 and 27 percent of unionized government workers identified as Republican. Yet public-sector union PACS gave 92 percent of their federal donations last year to Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And without any choice available to union members, it’s not even clear whether liberal members would spend their money the way the union does. They may prefer to donate to other causes or candidates, or to keep the money for themselves.

If Wisconsin public-sector employees want union representation, and if they agree with the unions’ political stances, they’ll continue to pay dues, and the unions will thrive. But if not, they will finally be able to opt out of subsidizing the electoral preferences of their union bosses.

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter.