Last week, the Idaho Legislature passed the Voluntary Contributions Act, a free speech bill that protects the rights of public-sector union members who differ with their union leaders on political issues. The bill, of a type known throughout the nation as a worker “paycheck protection” measure, prevents automatic union deductions for political activities from a worker’s paycheck but permits the worker to make voluntary contributions to a union’s political committee.

Under current law in most states, public- and private-sector labor unions may use the dues collected from their members for collective bargaining purposes and political campaigns. Unions are not required to obtain the permission of their members to do this, nor are they required to consider the political leanings of their members when doing so.

For years it seemed as if this situation, which many considered to be a gross violation of political rights, would never be resolved. Now, however, paycheck protection proposals — which put workers back in charge of their own pocketbooks — are gaining strength, as demonstrated by the new law in Idaho.

Five states now have some form of paycheck protection on the books, either banning the use of paycheck-deducted union dues for politics, or requiring unions to obtain their members’ permission before deducting money from their paychecks for politics. These states are Idaho, Utah, Michigan, Washington and Wyoming. The paycheck protection laws in two of these states — Idaho and Utah — apply only to public-sector union members.

Michigan’s paycheck protection law could be improved significantly. Under Michigan’s law, payroll dues deductions may be used for political action fund contributions only after individual workers grant their consent each year. The law does not cover union-sponsored phone banks, issue advertisements or publications, many of which are political in nature. Full paycheck protection would cover all union non-workplace related dues expenditures. (For more information on paycheck protection see http://www.mackinac.org/790.)

Paycheck protection codifies a simple philosophy: If unions want their members to give their own money to the political campaigns unions favor, they’re going to have to get their members’ permission first.

The Michigan public seems to agree. In an August 2002 EPIC-MRA statewide poll, 63 percent of those queried favor a law in Michigan that would require labor unions to spend dues money only on collective bargaining or on enforcing a workplace contract, unless the union receives specific permission from individual members authorizing that their dues be used for other purposes, such as politics. Nearly half — 49 percent — of those who identified themselves as union members favored this approach to protecting their paychecks. (For more information on this poll, see http://www.mackinac.org/4571.)

Passage of a more comprehensive Michigan law would improve union accountability to its membership and help restore workers’ trust in the honesty and integrity of their unions. Workers who believe strongly in collective bargaining, but not in union politics, no longer would be forced to choose between their First Amendment rights and their right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.

It is a simple matter of fairness and employee choice. Isn’t this what the free labor movement should stand for?

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Robert P. Hunter is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research and educational institute. He is a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.