22 September 2011

Union endorsements, unanimity and democracy

An update on the Rensselaer County (N.Y.) sheriff's race: after absentee ballots were counted, challenger Gary Gordon was declared the winner of the Conservative party primary over incumbent Jack Mahar by only six votes. Gordon was already assured of a place on the November ballot on the Democratic and Working Families lines, while Mahar remains on the Republican and Independence Party lines. Gordon was hailed as the one registered Conservative in the race by an ad purchased by SEARCO, the union representing the county sheriff's department employees, and the local paper has characterized the race for sheriff as a conflict between the union and its employer, Sheriff Mahar. Comments on the Troy Record's coverage reveal considerable division within employee ranks, apparently along clique lines, along with a lot of inane trolling and extensive administrative censorship. A letter published in today's Record questions how representative the advertised union endorsement of Gordon actually was. Edward Guerin is a corrections officer and a SEARCO member who contends that neither the union endorsement of Gordon nor the purchase of the ad in his favor were undertaken with input from the rank and file.

To state or even imply that every member of our union supports this ad and what it claims is not only untrue, but calls into question serious legal violations. No union meeting was held to discuss endorsing a candidate for sheriff. No vote was taken. In fact, no survey was ever taken.The decision to place this ad in the Times Union and The Record was made by only a few individuals. Union dues were spent on this ad without the consent or approval of every member of the union. In no way does the ad speak for the many members who do not agree with this endorsement. In fact, a tremendous number of union members, fully endorse Sheriff Jack Mahar for sheriff.

In fact, no such claim of unanimity was made in the SEARCO ad, unless you infer unanimity from a union endorsement. The ad states that SEARCO "strongly" endorsed Gordon, not that it did so unanimously. Guerin's closing claim that the ad was "grossly irresponsible, misleading and illegal" fails so long as you don't infer unanimity from the text of the ad. However, Guerin raises a valid question about the manner in which unions choose to endorse and subsidize political candidates. He describes a plainly undemocratic process, but I don't know if it was an exceptional process for SEARCO. Guerin has a legitimate beef if the union has made endorsements democratically in the past. If that's not the case, then his objection seems simply personal or partisan.

It's still fair to ask whether union endorsements should be determined democratically in all cases, but Guerin's objection reminds us of longstanding objections to union electioneering in general. Republicans in particular argue that union members' rights are violated in some way if the union endorses or donates to candidates whom individual members oppose. The premise is that members should not be coerced through the collection of dues into subsidizing politicians they don't like. By this standard, which is implicitly Guerin's as well, unless union support for any candidate is unanimous, someone's rights of conscience are being trampled upon. Guerin might still object had a majority of union members voted to endorse Gordon over Mahar, but should the law attend to his objections?

Unions enjoy the same political rights of corporate personhood as business corporations, according to the latest Supreme Court rulings. For any corporate person, the question arises of how, or by whom, decisions to donate money, and in the labor union case to explicitly endorse candidates, are made. As long as the law recognizes the political rights of corporate persons, a consistent standard ought to prevail for all such persons -- for business corporations and labor unions alike. If a board of directors, or a CEO, can make such political decisions without consulting stockholders, their union counterparts should enjoy the same prerogative. If unions must consult the rank and file before taking political actions, then business corporations should consult their rank-and-file, the shareholders. In either case, the political interventions of a corporate person need not be subject to a unanimity test. The political minority of shareholders and union members alike are SOL, yet bound by the same principle of majority rule, within constitutional limits, as American citizens as a whole. If a citizen can't carry out a line-item veto limiting how his tax money is spent, no member of a corporate person should expect to do so when it comes to political spending. If these are uncomfortable conclusions, then we should find some constitutional means to strip corporate persons -- including unions -- of the right to make political donations or buy political ads. Should we go further and deny unions the right (that business corporations usually don't exercise) of verbally endorsing candidates? That depends on whether your ideal of democracy allows any group of people to endorse, i.e. nominate a candidate for office, or whether you think individuals should never combine their voices before Election Day. There may not be easy answers to these questions, and there definitely aren't partisan ones.


hobbyfan said...

Keep it up, Sammy, and you may yet get credit as a muckraking investigative reporter.......

Samuel Wilson said...

Please. I didn't investigate jack. All I know is what I read in the papers -- but people can make more of that than they normally do.