Bush moves to curb use of union dues in politics

April 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In a move long sought by conservatives, President Bush will soon take steps to prevent labor unions from using money collected from non-union workers for political activities that those workers oppose.

The measures are intended, in part, to limit the activities of unions in support of Democratic candidates this year.

Labor leaders vehemently oppose the restrictions, saying that the rules will impose an undue accounting burden by requiring unions to keep detailed records of spending in different categories. They also say that Mr. Bush's plan would impede unions' legitimate political activities.

In a speech planned for tomorrow, Mr. Bush will describe his actions as a way to enforce a 1988 Supreme Court decision that workers who choose not to join a union may not be required to pay for any activities other than collective bargaining and representation on labor-management issues.

White House officials estimate that the president's actions will eventually keep $2.4 billion a year out of union coffers. The actual amount depends on many factors, including the number of workers who demand refunds.

A White House official said that Mr. Bush's actions would "protect workers' rights recognized by the Supreme Court" in the 1988 case, Communications Workers of America vs. Beck.

Harry E. Beck, an electronics technician whose feud with the union led to the 1988 decision, said that he had been invited to the White House for Mr. Bush's announcement.

Unions endorse Democratic candidates far more often than Republicans. "There's no doubt about that," said Laurence Gold, general counsel of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization.

But public opinion polls show that Republican candidates have won about one-third of the votes of union households in recent congressional elections, and slightly more than that in presidential races.

In many states, workers who do not belong to a union but are covered by a union contract may be required to pay dues to the union.

Under the policy to be announced by Mr. Bush, such workers would be able to obtain a refund of any portion of their fees that would otherwise have been used to finance political work, lobbying, organizing activities or social and charitable events.

As an example, a skilled aircraft mechanic, who earns $25 to $30 an hour, now pays union dues of about $30 a month to the International Association of Machinists. Union officials said that a non-member who objected to paying the full fee could get a reduction of 20 percent, or $6 a month, representing the amount used by the union for lobbying, organizing and political activity.

Such refunds would not be available to union members. A member of a teachers' union, for example, could not get a reduction in dues if he or she objected to the union's political activities. But members could resign and get a reduction in fees if they did not want to pay for political activities. Or members could work within the union to change its policies.

Under federal law, unions may not use dues for direct campaign contributions. But they can use the money to mobilize workers through such activities as telephone banks and get-out-the-vote drives.

Mr. Bush intends to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to post notices telling employees of their right to object to union use of their money for political activities.

In addition, he will order the Labor Department to require unions to report separately on what they spend for political activities, lobbying and contract negotiations, so that workers can identify spending for any political purposes they oppose.

Finally, Mr. Bush is urging the National Labor Relations Board to adopt new procedures for swift handling of complaints about union spending.

Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, said the steps planned by Mr. Bush "demonstrate his willingness to pander to union-bashing, right-wing extremists in his party."

Administration officials note that it was liberal Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who wrote the 1988 court decision saying that non-union workers may not be required to finance the political activities of a union with which they disagree.

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