News Story

Supreme Court Eyes Unions Politicking With Fees Compelled From Workers

Unions spent $1.7 billion on politics in 2016 cycle; a ruling this June could bring that down

In a 2014 Rolling Stone article titled, “Three New Ways The Koch Brothers Are Screwing Americans,” the author wrote of an “outpouring of money” from billionaires Charles and David Koch.

The article reflected fears prevalent on the left and in the mainstream media related to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It held that government restrictions on political spending by corporations — including nonprofit corporations organized by individuals motivated by ideology or political views — infringe on free speech rights recognized by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 2016, The New York Times echoed the fears of the 2014 Rolling Stone article with a report that the Koch political network planned to spend $900 million on a political campaign, which the newspaper called “unparalleled.”

Similar stories often downplay that the Citizens United ruling also struck down restraints on political spending by labor unions.

Largely underreported is U.S. unions spent $1.7 billion during the 2016 election cycle, according to an analysis by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

Some of that political spending was by union political action committees, which are funded by voluntary contributions by union members and others. But 75 percent of union political spending came from what are called “treasury funds.” This money does not come from voluntary contributions, but from union “agency fees" and dues. These are fees that workers in a unionized workplace are compelled to pay to the union as a condition of employment.

In June, another case before the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, could have major impact on future political spending by big labor.

Mark Janus is an Illinois state employee who sued because he believes these compulsory union agency fees violate his free speech rights by making him pay for political activities he does not support. His lawyers also argue that in the context of a government workplace, union collective bargaining itself is inherently a political act because the outcomes relate directly to public policy decisions by government.

If Janus prevails, government employee unions will lose their power to compel government employees to pay agency fees. This would be equivalent of adopting a nationwide right-to-work law for public employees.

“The unions spent $1.7 billion on politics in 2016, just about all of which went in a leftward direction,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “If the Janus case is successful for the plaintiff, it will be interesting to see how much union political spending habits will be impacted. Will the union spend more on right-of-center candidates to attract members? Will they be content to keep spending on progressives but with fewer members/dollars? Only time will tell.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.