Politics & Policy

Dues for Democrats

Unions spend their members’ money on political advocacy that may go against their beliefs.

The teachers’ union at Apollo-Ridge High School in western Pennsylvania has no qualms about spending members’ dues on liberal political causes — but when French instructor Linda Misja opted out of membership and tried to send her withheld dues money to conservative charities, they fought back hard.

The 58-year-old Misja says that, as a devout Catholic, she found the National Education Association’s support for abortion unconscionable, and she also disagreed with the policies of Democratic candidates the union helped promote. So, despite intense pressure from the union leadership, she opted out.

Because Pennsylvania isn’t a right-to-work state, the union still deducts “fair-share” money from workers’ paychecks as a condition of their employment, though those with religious objections are legally allowed to choose “a nonreligious charity agreed upon by the nonmember and the union” to receive these funds.

After much research, Misja selected a pro-life nonprofit that worked with pregnant youth. But the union vetoed that choice. So instead she selected a charity that teaches gun safety to teenagers. “Turned down again — I was told the group I chose was too political,” Misja says.

She contacted the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm that offers free legal services to employees fighting union abuse, and together, they filed a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Education Association this summer. The case is still ongoing.

“I didn’t know it was going to come to this, where I would be forced to go against my beliefs,” Misja tells National Review. “That’s not why I got into teaching. . . . Had I joined the union, my money would be working directly against my beliefs.”

Misja is hardly alone. An exhaustive new study from the Center for Union Facts (CUF) crunched the numbers on union political spending, tracking down where members’ dues ended up. Nearly $140 million — about 99 percent of all union political contributions — went to Democrats and liberal causes, the study found.

But a sizeable minority of union members nationwide lean right, preferring Republican candidates and conservative causes. One recent Gallup poll found that around one in four members of private- and public-sector unions identified as Republican. A study by Cornell’s Roper Center found that 40 percent of union households voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Numerous exit polls in recent years have found that between 35 and 40 percent of union households vote Republican.

“I believe what this illustrates is that union members have very little control over their own dues money, which is supposed to be for collective bargaining — but a whole lot of it is going to political causes and political advocacy,” says Richard Berman, executive director of CUF.

Planned Parenthood and its advocacy nonprofit received $435,000 in 2014 from unions spending their members’ dues. Most of it came from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, CUF says.

In 2014, major unions also gave more than $680,000 to Al Sharpton’s tax-indebted nonprofit, the National Action Network, and more than $108,000 to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

And at least 13 major unions gave member dues to environmental organizations, including Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee and the League of Conservation Voters. All together, 16 green groups received more than $4 million in union-dues cash in 2014 alone, according to CUF.

Such expenditures sometimes even ran against the union’s own interests and priorities. For example, the AFL-CIO fought hard for the Keystone XL pipeline over the past year — but also contributed $25,000 to the Center for Effective Government, which campaigned against the pipeline and called President Obama’s final rejection of Keystone “a major victory for public health and the environment.”

CUF did not examine union disbursements from Committee on Political Education funds or those of other political-action committees (looking just at the spending of union dues). If those funds were factored in, the amount of money spent on Democrats and liberal causes would be even higher.

“Union officials have very much turned to politics to hang onto and expand their powers, and they do so in a way that doesn’t reflect the diversity of opinion . . . of their own members,” says Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

He says that many disgruntled union members find themselves in a tricky dilemma. Without full, dues-paying membership, they can’t vote to influence union leadership and, ultimately, where union funds go. But “in order to have even a very limited amount of say [over] how their money is spent, they have to fork out money . . . to causes they disagree with, particularly on politics,” Semmens says.

Congress is currently considering legislation, introduced by Georgia representative Tom Price and Utah senator Orrin Hatch, that would require unions to get written consent from individual workers before they can use their dues for purposes other than collective bargaining. But past attempts to pass the so-called Employee Rights Act have been defeated by Democratic opposition, often from candidates who received financial support from organized labor.

That leaves frustrated workers like Linda Misja with few options. Though she received legal support from the Fairness Center, other members have to cover the costs of their own attorneys if they choose to fight back in court — and those fees may well exceed the expense of union dues.

Regardless, Misja says, she was ready to fight. “I’m not willing to forget because I do see the big picture,” she says. “I see what this money is going toward, and I cannot allow that to happen.”

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