A worker choice advocacy group announced in a report Monday that unions increased their political spending during the last election in a move to further influence politics even as membership rates decline.

Labor unions have long played an influential role in politics. That influence often stems from large political contributions primarily to candidates on the left. The National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR) found in a new report that labor unions spent $1.7 billion during the 2016 election.

“In the face of their declining membership numbers, union officials are steadily increasing the share of coerced dues money they funnel into politics to protect and expand their government-granted power,” NILRR senior research associate Stan Greer said in a statement. “Over the past two years, private-sector union bosses directed over $1.3 billion of general funds towards what they admit is political and lobbying activities.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found union membership fell from 20.1 percent in 1983 to just 11.1 percent by 2014. The NILRR provides research on a range of labor-related issues. It has been highly critical of policies that allow for compulsory unionism. The report found union political spending was higher than the last presidential election.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that this money is largely derived from dues and fees collected from workers who would be fired for refusing to pay,” Greer said. “These numbers show that Big Labor is increasingly turning its focus away from workplace matters and more and more towards buying political influence.”

Labor unions primarily fund Democratic candidates, with this past election being no exception. Democrats still suffered a major defeat despite the union support. Republicans were able to secure the presidency while retaining congressional control. President Donald Trump was even able to win support from many working class union districts.

Labor union treasury funds accounted for most of the reported spending at 75 percent. Political spending coming from union general treasury funds increased by nearly $300 million from the 2014 midterms. Union general treasury funds consist primarily of money paid by workers in the form of membership dues or nonmember fees.

The Department of Labor (DOL) oversees the union financial disclosure reports. The NILRR warns that some of those expenditure reports are likely underrepresented since treasury fund expenditures are self-reported by the unions themselves. Labor unions without any private sector members are not required to file such reports.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) requires labor groups to disclose their financial activities including political expenditures. The law ensures membership and law enforcement know where union dues are going.

Congress enacted the law in 1959 in response to union corruption and racketeering. It strengthened earlier congressional action to rein in unions through the Taft–Hartley Act of 1947.  Labor unions had previously gained outsized power through the Wagner Act of 1935.

The federal disclosure reports make a distinction between political and nonpolitical spending for a number of reasons. The distinction helps to determine whether a worker is responsible for funding certain union activities. Workers in a unionized workplace cannot be forced to fund political activities if they become nonmembers.

Nowhere in the country can a worker be forced to fund union political activities. A worker within an unionized workplace can petition to pay a nonpolitical fair-share fee as a nonmember instead of full union dues. Those fees can only cover the cost of representation for that bargaining unit.

The U.S. Supreme Court first provided the fair-share option in the 1988 case Communications Workers of America v. Beck. The court at the time determined it was unlawful to force a worker to fund union political causes. It did find, however, that unions have a right to require dues that cover representation and overhead costs.

The fair-share fee in itself has also received plenty of criticism. Workers in an organized bargaining unit must still fund the union whether they support it or not unless they are in a right-to-work state. Right-to-work outlaws mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

Those opposed to compulsory unionism have attempted to reduce the practice in a number of ways. The majority of states have passed right-to-work measures that outlaw mandatory union dues. Congressional Republicans also introduced a measure that would outlaw compulsory unionism nationwide.

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