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Public Employee Unions Don't Get One Penny from Taxpayers and Can't Require Membership, But the Big Lie That They Do Is Everywhere

Nobody has to belong to a union or support its political activities, but you'd never know that from reading the news.
 
 
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Let us begin with this simple, indisputable truth: public employees' unions don't get a single red cent from taxpayers. And they aren't a mechanism to “force” working people to support Democrats – that's completely illegal.

Public sector workers are employed by the government, but they are private citizens. Once a private citizen earns a dollar from the sweat of his or her brow, it no longer belongs to his or her employer. In the case of public workers, it is no longer a “taxpayer dollar”; it is a dollar held privately by an American citizen. Public sector unions are financed through the dues paid by these private citizens, who elected to be part of a union – not a single taxpayer dollar is involved, and no worker is forced to join a union against his or her wishes. No worker in the United States is required to give one red cent to support a political cause he or she doesn't agree with.

There is no distinction between the role public- and private-sector unions play: both represent their members in negotiations with their employers. At the federal level, both are prohibited from using their members' dues for political purposes. They donate to political campaigns – to elect lawmakers who will stand up for the interests of working people – but only out of voluntary contributions their members choose to make to their PACs.

“Unions cannot, from their general funds, contribute a dime to any federal candidate or national political party,” says Laurence Gold, an attorney with the AFL-CIO. “They can only do it through their separate political PAC and only according to strict limits.”

The states have a patchwork of different laws, and many do allow unions to donate to campaigns. But membership is entirely voluntary – when a group of workers elect to form a union, it doesn't mean that everyone must sign up. The union negotiates on behalf of all the workers in the group – and all of the workers get the job security and other benefits that come with collective bargaining -- but by law it can't compel them to pay union dues. “It is a right-wing canard that anyone needs to join a union,” Gold told AlterNet. “If a union member doesn't like what his or her union is doing, he or she is ultimately free to walk, without any diminution in their employment rights. They still get all the benefits and the union still has to represent them – just like it did the day before.”

In states that haven't passed so-called Right-To-Work laws, the union can charge all workers in a “negotiating unit” for the direct cost of representing them, but cannot, by law, force them to pay for the union's political activities. “They can only be required to pay for their share of bargaining costs and representation costs – not politics, not legislative stuff, not anything else,” Gold said. “Compulsory union dues are a canard, everywhere, and without exception. Anybody who says, oh you can compel somebody to support the union's electoral activities – well, that's simply false.”

Now that we have established a baseline of factual reality, let's take a look at what much of the media – even the ostensibly “liberal” media – are telling the American people.

In a widely cited opinion piece in the Washington Post , former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson claimed that "public employee unions have the unique power to help pick pliant negotiating partners -- by using compulsory dues to elect friendly politicians." Again, a blatant falsehood, and one that prompted economist Dean Baker to point out that “if Mr. Gerson knows of any violations of the law, I'm sure that there are many ambitious prosecutors who would be happy to hear his evidence.”