Andy Stern: Master of forced-labor unionism

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Docking Workers' Paychecks for Politics

The mighty Service Employees International Union (SEIU) plans to spend some $150 million in this year's election, most of it to get Barack Obama and other Democrats elected. Where'd they get that much money?

That's a question the Departments of Labor and Justice are being asked to investigate by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Specifically, the labor watchdog group wants Justice to query a new SEIU policy that appears to coerce local workers into funding the parent union's national political priorities.

The union adopted a new amendment to its constitution at last month's SEIU convention, requiring that every local contribute an amount equal to $6 per member per year to the union's national political action committee. This is in addition to regular union dues. Unions that fail to meet the requirement must contribute an amount in "local union funds" equal to the "deficiency," plus a 50% penalty. According to an SEIU union representative, this has always been policy, but has now simply been formalized.

No other major institution could get away with its bosses demanding that every single one of its workers step in line behind its political preferences. This is the sort of imposed political obeisance that infuriates so many workers and turns them away from unions.

The SEIU political mandate may also violate federal law. Union and corporate PACs are supposed to rely on "voluntary" contributions, and it is illegal for them to use money secured by the "threat" of "financial reprisal." It's hard to see that an SEIU mandate enforced by financial penalties of 50% isn't a "threat" or would qualify under any definition of "voluntary."

There's more. As many workers who would rather not join a union realize, employees can be required to join a union or to pay dues as a condition of employment. It is illegal, however, for a union to take these compelled union dues and use them to affect federal elections.

SEIU locals will no doubt try to fulfill their national commitment with voluntary contributions. But the SEIU's amendment suggests that unions that fail to meet that obligation will be required to pay for both the shortfall and penalty with member dues and agency fees. Any use of that dues money in a PAC would be a federal no-no. Meanwhile, use of dues from nonunion members (those who must pay dues even though they refuse to join a union) for any political activity, a PAC or otherwise, is prohibited.

The SEIU has in the past run close to the edge with the campaign-finance crowd. In the last Presidential cycle, SEIU President Andy Stern was among the founders of America Coming Together (ACT), one of the 527 groups that has sprung up to influence elections while avoiding individual campaign donor limits. Along with billionaire George Soros, the SEIU was among the largest contributors to that 527, raising some $26 million to elect John Kerry in 2004.

The Federal Election Commission later imposed a $775,000 penalty on ACT for violating campaign finance laws, the largest ever against a 527. Big as it was, the fine equaled less than one cent on the dollar for the $100 million that ACT improperly used to influence a national election. Mr. Stern was only a founder of ACT. But the political lesson is that the benefit of breaking the rules and potentially winning an election far outweighs a minuscule financial penalty well after the outcome is decided.

That's why the feds should take this complaint seriously. The SEIU contribution demand isn't just another technical violation of campaign-finance rules but may break serious rules about labor operations and union dues. The time to investigate this is before the election.

Union employees have every right to participate in elections. Union chiefs don't have the right to coerce them.


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