Does Labor Still Have Clout?

April 20, 1992

Perhaps coincidentally, leaders of organized labor endorsed Bill Clinton's candidacy last Monday, and President Bush signed an executive order that will reduce the amount of money labor will have available to it for political purposes. Taken together, the two events suggest how weakened organized labor's political clout has become.

The AFL-CIO would really prefer not to have to endorse the moderate governor of a right-to-work Southern state like Arkansas. Its heart belonged to Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, but his candidacy was a flop. And the AFL-CIO would certainly prefer that its component unions not face the record-keeping burdens and loss of funds for political use that the presidential order will produce.

The president's order requires federal contractors to post in prominent places notices to the effect that non-union workers paying agency fees to unions may demand a refund of any money spent on non-representational purposes (such as, for example, election phone banks). The order also requires the unions to report to the Labor Department how much dues money is spent for what. The administration says the order will lead to unions' losing $2.4 billion annually, which is an absurd exaggeration, meant to make anti-union conservatives who have been pressuring Mr. Bush for this for the past three years feel good, we imagine.

Administration officials also say the action is the result of a 1988 Supreme Court decision by liberal Justice William Brennan to the effect that non-union members had constitutional and statutory rights not to have their dues spent for political purposes. That's a message meant to appeal to non-conservatives, namely that if he was for it, they should be. In fact, there has always been a difference of opinion among liberals about this issue. The case Mr. Brennan ruled in came to the Supreme Court from the Fourth Circuit. Two left-of-center Democrats from Baltimore, Judge Frank Murnaghan and the late chief judge of the circuit, Harrison Winter, wrote opposing opinions.

Justice Brennan's view is the law of the land. Organized labor can only hope it still has enough clout to get Congress to rewrite the law -- and that a President Clinton will be in the White House to sign it and a Secretary of Labor Harkin in the cabinet to enforce it in a friendly way.

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