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Paycheck Protection

“Paycheck Protection” is an effort to undermine labor’s political clout by dramatically limiting the ability of labor unions to collect (and spend) union dues for any broadly defined “political” purpose. As it stands, labor’s political spending is already sharply constrained: The Taft-Hartley Act (1947) prohibits direct spending on federal candidates or campaigns. The Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) allowed labor unions to create political action committees (PACs), but also required them to fund PACs with voluntary, non-dues contributions. A string of Supreme Court cases (covering railway workers [1961], public sector workers [1977], and private sector workers [1988]) gave non-members covered by union contracts (many of whom pay reduced “agency fees” dues for representation) the right to opt out of political spending. In 2007, the court upheld a Washington State law which took this one step further by requiring public sector worker to “opt-in” to any political spending. In recent years, “paycheck protection’’ proposals—drafted, funded, and promoted by right-wing groups—have pressed to embed this in state law (see “Current” tab for details).


Paycheck deception laws and proposals vary somewhat in approach:  Those targeting public sector unions and their members include not just “paycheck protection” efforts to segregate and limit political spending but more sweeping efforts (as in Wisconsin) to end all automatic dues deduction. Those targeting private sector workers (often dubbed “the voluntary contribution act”) force unions to manage political spending through voluntary contributions to a separate account. As of last fall, six states hade some form of “paycheck protection” in place: Washington, Michigan, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Ohio. Despite a concerted effort by ALEC and others to push model legislation in this area after the 2010 elections, new laws passed only in Alabama (covering public sector workers) and Arizona (covering all workers).




Shouldn’t political contributions by voluntary?

Yes, of course. But organizations take political positions on behalf of their members all the time.  Paycheck protection singles out unions and union members for burdensome restrictions that don’t apply to the shareholders of corporations or the members of other organizations (like the NRA or the AARP). Indeed, of all these groups, unions already offer extensive protection of individual rights: Union members choose whether to join the union, set their own dues, elect their own leaders and vote on where and how their money will be spent. Because paycheck protection targets only unions, its real impact (and intent) is to further skew political spending (in which corporate interest outspend unions almost 20-1).

Can’t unions separate their bargaining and political activities?

Not really.  While proponents of paycheck protection like to portray union dues as little more than a Democratic slush fund, they are actually targeting the labor movement’s broader political influence—as a voice for working families, as an advocate for decent working conditions.  Union participation in campaigns and elections is well-regulated by existing law.  These laws seek to silence working women and men and their unions.


Learn More

The AFL-CIO’s “States of Denial” project tracks recent state efforts to enact paycheck protection; ballot measures are tracked by Ballotpedia.  The web resource “ALEC Exposed” has the text of various model bills pressed by the right wing group. For a concise summary of the goal of paycheck protection laws, from the beginnings of the right’s campaign in the late 1990s, see Robert Dreyfuss, “Paycheck Protection Racket,” Mother Jones (1998).


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