The Taxpayer as Bagman
In California, the citizenry pays for the collection of dues for public employee unions.
As just about every teacher in California will tell you, union dues are deducted by the local school district from their monthly paycheck just as federal and state withholding taxes are. Then the school district turns the money over to the local teachers union. And we all get to pay for this service. Yup, the teachers union, a private organization, doesn’t pay a penny for the transactions. In fact, payroll deduction is de rigeur for all public employee unions. But not all states suck up to organized labor like California.
Other states like North Carolina and Alabama have already passed legislation prohibiting paycheck deductions. Most notably, new right-to-work states Wisconsin and Michigan have followed suit. Most recently, Oklahoma just passed a law that makes the unions responsible for collecting their own dues. HB 1749 stipulates that it “shall be unlawful for any state agency to make payroll deductions on behalf of a state employee for membership dues in any public employee association or organization or professional organization that on or after November 1, 2015, collectively bargains on behalf of its membership pursuant to any provision of federal law.”
Last week, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a partial measure. This bill, should it become law, would prohibit public sector unions from using employee paycheck deductions to fund certain political activities. In fact, a similar tack has been tried several times in California. In 2005, Prop 75 would have allowed automatic deductions for the political portion of public employees’ union dues only if the worker gave their permission to do so. And in 2012 Prop 32, among other things, would have banned “automatic deductions by corporations, unions, and government of employees’ wages to be used for politics.” Both measures failed.
While union bosses love the taxpayer-as-bagman set-up (why wouldn’t they!), not all workers do. Years ago when I was teaching, I asked then UTLA president A.J. Duffy at a union meeting why teachers weren’t responsible for paying their own dues. He responded, “They might forget.” I didn’t respond, but knew that some of my colleagues were thinking what I was thinking. Forget? No. Not choose to pay? Yes. A 2014 poll in Pennsylvania also showed that the rank-and-file and the bosses are not of the same mind. The survey of union households across the state found that “80 percent of union households said taxpayer resources should not be used to collect campaign contributions.” Union leaders, as usual, refuse to deal directly with the issue, but instead set up straw men to attack: “It’s really about keeping control in the hands of corporations,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation with about 900,000 members. Huh? He then went on to explain, “ only want to hear from the corporations and billionaires.”
Let’s look at this another way. Say you buy a gun. After the purchase, the government starts deducting money from your paycheck whether you want it to or not and turning the cash over to the National Rifle Association. The NRA claims it is justified in doing so because it says it will advocate for you and provide legal assistance should you need it. The NRA doesn’t pay for the service, and moreover, doesn’t pay a penny in income tax. Reasonable? Hardly.
One glimmer of hope for the Golden State is the Friedrichs v California Teachers Association case. It’s possible that if the U.S. Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs, one of the by-products could be a legislature more responsive to its constituents instead of CTA, which is by far the most powerful special interest in the state.
But by whatever means, we need to release the taxpayers from their forced bagman status. To paraphrase the late William F. Buckley, it’s time for the unions to collect their own damn dues.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.