Rep. Steve Drazkowski's shot at sabotaging unions' political strength

When public sector workers contribute to their unions' political activity, they do it entirely voluntarily. But Rep. Steve Drazkowski wants to make sure they're loaded down with extra paperwork and bureaucracy.

When public sector workers contribute to their unions' political activity, they do it entirely voluntarily. But Rep. Steve Drazkowski wants to make sure they're loaded down with extra paperwork and bureaucracy. AFL-CIO

Minnesota Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) introduced a bill earlier this month that he promoted as a long overdue remedy for workers forced to pay union fees that go to support political activity they don't agree with.

The bill (HF 3723), would prevent employers from automatically deducting union fees from public sector workers' wages if that money is to be used for lobbying or campaigning. It also states that "fair share fees," a fraction of union dues paid by workers who don't want to be union members but still benefit from collective bargaining, can't be used for political purposes at all.

"Each year I hear from disgruntled state and local workers who share their extreme frustration with the fact that a portion of the money they work hard to earn is taken from their paychecks only to end up being used to contribute to the mountains of cash that fill the airwaves, mailboxes, and social media feeds each election cycle," Drazkowski said during a hearing. 

"Oftentimes government employees find their own money being used for speech that is 180 degrees opposite their strong-held beliefs."

Drazkowski didn't have any of those disgruntled constituents testifying in favor of his bill, but a great number of public sector workers did show up to oppose it. According to Minnesota's largest public sector unions, the bill is deceptive in that fair share fees already cannot be used for political activity, unions collectively decide what that activity entails, and union members can opt out at any time.

What the bill really means is that if unions want to direct member dues toward anything they advocate for at the Capitol, they'd have to call up hundreds of thousands of people individually and set up alternative methods of payment.

It's no coincidence that most of union campaigning goes to Democrats, since Republicans usually side with employers over employees. The GOP has imposed a host of similar restrictions around the country to temper labor's strength.   

Education Minnestoa attorney Meg Luger says the teachers union opposes Drazkowski's bill because it reflects a lack of understanding about how dues and political contributions are currently made. 

"This really just an effort to try to weaken the way unions operate and the ability of union members to advocate on their own behalf and to advocate on behalf of the union as a vehicle," Luger says. "It's clearly intended to stifle workers from using their money in political activity."

Education Minnesota advocates for things like pensions, class sizes, and special education funding. It will also endorse candidates it views as being friendly toward public education.

Julie Blaha, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, called it "paycheck deception legislation" intended not to give workers more choice, but to create busywork for unions.

"It’s about having to set up another system so that some of the resources you could use to come together and be heard are going to go toward the mechanics of that," she said. "That’s what they want. They want that money shifted into processes instead of action."

The AFL-CIO's political activity in recent years includes lobbying for the right of local governments to pass minimum wage and sick leave laws, and endorsing candidates considered pro-worker.

Rep. Michael Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) proposed an amendment that seemed to keep with the spirit of Drazkowski's bill -- forcing publicly traded corporations to get permission from individual stakeholders before they contribute money to political causes.

"Those corporation boards through Citizen United are able to spend money on political purposes and I don’t like that either, as much as Rep. Drazkowski doesn’t like union members being able to spend their money on political purposes. So what we’re going to be doing for the goose we should do the same for the gander," he said.

The Government Operations and Election Policy committee voted 10-8 along party lines to suppress that amendment.