Disgusted Nevada union members can quit

The leaders of the Culinary union - the most powerful association of non-government workers in Nevada and one of the few non-government unions in this country not in decline - withheld their endorsement for this weekend's Nevada Democratic caucuses till the final days.

The fact that the Culinary's leadership favored freshman Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was an ill-kept secret. The delay was most reasonably attributed to caution: The union bosses wanted to keep open a line of retreat to the Hillary Clinton camp had Sen. Obama fared poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sen. Obama won in Iowa, and made it close in New Hampshire. The Culinary promptly endorsed him. Now the fact that the state Democratic Party plans a number of "at-large" caucus locations near the major Strip hotels on Saturday - making it easier for Culinary members who work Saturday shifts to participate - is seen as favoring Sen. Obama's chances.

Immediately, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the other largest Democratic union in Nevada - the state teachers union - challenging the at-large caucus locations.

Why? Do individual teachers want some fellow Democrats shut out of the process?

Highly unlikely.

Instead, though the teachers may have made no official endorsement, the leadership of the their union clearly favors the candidacy of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, now seen as the loser if the party makes it easier for Culinary workers to flock to the polls Saturday and caucus for Sen. Obama.

So much for worker solidarity -- let alone the standard Democratic insistence that it should be as easy as possible for everyone to participate in elections.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge James Mahan ruled against the attempt by the teachers union to block at-large precincts on the Strip. Judge Mahan said the Democratic Party had the right to set its own rules.

It's a good ruling, not because it helps Sen. Obama (to the extent it really does), but because the judge followed the law.

What are rank-and-file union members to make of such internecine political squabbling on their dime? What does any of this have to do with the better pay and working conditions most people seek when they join a union?

In a ruling with more direct relevance to "union shop" states, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 20 years ago that while even non-member workers can be required to pay partial dues to the unions that bargain on their behalf, they can't be required to pay that portion of the union's dues that go to fund partisan political activism.

That ruling -- Communication Workers v. Beck -- is soundly grounded in the First Amendment. No one can be required to hand over money to someone else, if those funds will then be used to promote political views or causes which are anathema to the person whose money is being used.

Republicans, who occasionally do the right thing, ordered summaries of the Beck decision to be posted at union workplaces, so workers would know they can apply for a refund of that part of their dues used for politicking with which they disagree. But one of the first things the incoming Clinton Democrats did in 1993 was order such signs taken down -- their union backers were much happier if workers were kept in ignorance of this right.

The Beck decision is less relevant in Nevada, which fortunately is a right-to-work state. Because no Nevadan can be required to join a union just to get or keep his or her job, disgusted union members here have an even more effective option. They can keep their jobs and quit the union.

But this inter-union squabbling highlights why it was so important for the court to give members control over whether they want their dues used to support such cynical partisan activities.


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