Union Blues


Robert Murray won't be celebrating Labor Day this year—at least not as a tribute to organized labor. Although Murray has spent the last 16 years helping disabled Californians get back to work as a counselor for the state's Department of Rehabilitation—a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement—he's no fan of his assigned union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "I feel like I am involved with a group of thugs who are forcing their political agenda on me," says an aggravated Murray. "They are brazenly, arrogantly ignoring my rights."

Murray resigned from AFSCME more than a decade ago, when he discovered it was using dues money to play politics. Instead, became a "fair share" payer. Such workers must pay for the direct-contract services unions provide, but they are entitled to a refund of that portion of dues that supports the union's political agenda. Murray's problem is that when he asked in 1998 for a fair-share refund, AFSCME first ignored him, and then charged him a monthly fee–$29.79–that is actually higher than the $28.96 in monthly dues paid by full union members. "It pains me to support Democrats with my money," says Murray, who describes himself as a small "l" Libertarian. "They brag about supporting the Democrats, Al Gore and Gray Davis."

Left with little choice, Murray teamed up with the National Right to Work Foundation and filed a lawsuit to compel AFSCME to abide by the law. Murray is not alone. Richard Wagner is another worker who has filed a lawsuit to vindicate his rights. Wagner's job as an investigator for the state's Air Resources Board falls under a contract with Professional Engineers in California Government. Although that union admittedly spent over $1.5 million on political activity in 1998, it refuses to refund any of this money.

And there are the employees of the California State University System, for whom this Labor Day may well be the last they can celebrate as individuals who are free to support, or not support, a union. A bill will soon arrive on the governor's desk that would force some 74,000 CSU and University of California employees to give a portion of their paychecks to unions. (For the employees, this means roughly $550 a year extracted from their paychecks. For the 20 or so unions that represent workers in the systems, it means more than $40 million in new spending money.)

This is a story that organized labor likes to obscure: that its power is based on not-so-subtle coercion, and that it often tramples on individuals' rights under laws that are already favorable to unions. When unions are unhappy with the law, they spend forced dues to elect politicians who will change it.

Unions also downplay another fact: Any resurgence in organized labor is a resurgence in the public sector. In California, only 10 percent of private-sector workers are covered by a union. One in two government workers, however, are forced to pay union dues or fair-share fees. And when public-sector employers and employees are at the bargaining table, both sides are aligned against the taxpayer. "Standard labor unions bargain with an employer who has to meet a bottom line, and therefore must fight unreasonable demands," explains San Francisco State Economist David Sisk. "It's much different in the public sector. There the primary goal is to elect politicians, since they control how much public employees make." Since politicians are spending other people's money, they respond to the loud and lucrative union constituency. The result is higher taxes and fewer government services.

AFSCME's agenda, for example, is stridently liberal, supporting a more regulated labor market, more health care regulation, and more spending on failed government schools. Wagner's PECG has spent years fighting to prevent the state from contracting out engineering services to private firms that may be able to do the job faster and for less money. The result of PECG's obstructionism, according to the Legislative Analyst Office, is delayed highway projects and 220 new government workers who are needed to perform tasks that would have been contracted out. Each new government employee will be forced to pay PECG dues.

Over the next four years, Californians will witness the forced-union-dues spiral: money taken from workers like Murray and Wagner is given to politicians, who introduce bills such as the university system law that will allow unions to take more money from workers that they can give to politicians who in turn will pass more laws. And so on.

That's not how government is explained in the textbooks. But it is what citizens can expect in the new California.