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Attack on unions is class warfare

Patrick McCartney

Not satisfied with its customary advantage in campaign financing, the Republican Party has launched a nationwide assault this year on the ability of labor unions to compete on equal terms. And the assault comes from a political party that never tires of accusing its opponents of engaging in class warfare.

Am I missing something?

Republicans are sponsoring initiatives in both California and Nevada this year that would prohibit a labor union from spending its members’ dues for campaign contributions unless it obtains written permission from each member every year.

On the surface, the initiatives sound eminently fair.

Why should anyone be forced to contribute money to political campaigns they don’t support?

But that view ignores the larger picture, as well as the safeguards already in place that allow union members to restrict the use of the dues they pay. When you know the facts, it’s hard not to view the anti-union measures as the most overt example of class warfare in many years.

First, the bigger picture.

What ignited the wrath of Republican political leaders was the $35 million campaign by the AFL-CIO in 1996 to support Democratic candidates. Not a day went by without Republican leaders evoking the bogeyman of “union bosses” trying to subvert the American political process.

As if working men and women didn’t deserve to pursue their political self-interest, and as if labor unions somehow don’t represent the interests of their members.

Moreover, the war chest the AFL-CIO raised was like a pop-gun compared to the clout represented by contributions from American businesses. Year in and year out, U.S. corporations contribute $10 in political contributions for every dollar donated by labor unions.

Is the political voice of big business threatened by political contributions from the unions that represent their employees? In the last presidential campaign, corporate donations accounted for the lion’s share of the $600 million spent by both parties.

In California, business interests spent $74 million lobbying the Legislature in 1995-96. Unions spent $4.6 million.

So, just why are Republicans so intent on limiting the already muted voice of labor in the American political system? Many say it’s because union money goes almost exclusively to Democratic candidates.

But, is that any surprise? Would you expect unions to contribute to Republicans when the party opposes most labor issues?

Republican Rep. Dick Armey of Texas even proposed doing away with the minimum wage. Would any Democrat ever suggest a policy that would strip away a law that prevents the wages of American workers from descending to Third-World status?

Get real.

The irony is that workers already are protected from having their union dues spent in ways they oppose. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workers cannot be compelled to pay for union activities other than contract negotiations.

In addition, union members elect their leaders, and have the right to change leadership if they think their leaders’ political agenda does not represent their own interests. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

In California, union strategists first toyed with the idea of sponsoring an initiative that would require corporations to solicit the written agreement of each stockholder before spending their money on political donations. The tit-for-tat strategy.

But the unions dropped the idea, and will concentrate instead on defeating the cynical Republican attempt to silence labor’s voice.

I’m glad they made that decision.

It leaves the Republican Party as the only player this year conducting class warfare.

Patrick McCartney covers the environment and general assignment issues for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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