The elephant in the political spending room |
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With the 2014 elections just around the corner, opponents of political spending are kicking into high gear. The left blames industrialists like Charles and David Koch for degrading democracy. The right blames shadowy foundations and financiers like George Soros for the same. Still others rip the Supreme Court for allowing runaway political spending in the first place via its decision in Citizens United.

But all of this fuss obscures one of the largest funders of American politics, one that — unlike the Kochs or Soros — can force people to contribute to candidates and causes with which they disagree.

I’m talking about labor unions. While forcing people to contribute to political causes that run contrary to their beliefs may seem outrageous, it’s merely the status quo for millions of union members today.

2014 will be no different. Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pledged that labor will spend a staggering $300 million to unseat just five Republican governors, including Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania. Were all union members in these five states opposed to these governors, it would be one thing. But as recent data show, it’s quite another.

In Pennsylvania in 2010, 42 percent of members of union households voted for Corbett, yet 95 percent of union political contributions went to Democrat candidate Dan Onorato, according to The same story is likely to play out this fall, as approximately 30 to 40 percent of union household voters will cast ballots for Republican candidates across the country whom their unions are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat.

Why don’t Republican-voting union members just stop paying dues they know are going to Democrat candidates? In Pennsylvania, unionized employees have few options. They would be faced with having to quit the union, forfeiting their rights to a voice in workplace matters and filing a formal “objection” — a process which in many instances involves heavy union intimidation. Even assuming one is able to navigate this bureaucracy, he would still have to pay fees to the union.

There has to be a way to reduce this inequality of rights between unions and their members. Fortunately, there is legislation before both houses of Congress that provides an opportunity for reform: the Employee Rights Act (ERA).

Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the ERA would be the first substantive reform to federal labor law in over 50 years. One of its provisions would require unions to gain consent from members before spending their dues money on political causes or candidates.

Neither this nor any other provision of the ERA will deny any union member rights he currently has. Under the ERA, union members who support the liberal slant of union political operations will be free to support it, just as they are now. But the roughly 40 percent of union households that support Republicans will be given the right to contribute only to candidates and causes with which they agree.

The ERA has additional, highly popular provisions — close to 80 percent among union households — to protect employee rights, including the right to a secret ballot and protection against union threats of violence or intimidation. It’s time members of Congress listen to their constituents and pass the ERA.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which operates

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