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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What is paycheck protection really about?

The following video by Tim Hill,  President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona (PFFA), is posted on YouTube and gives a legislative activity update for 2013:

The first legislative priority Mr. Hill mentions is beating back paycheck protection bills being introduced in the 2013 session.  The term "paycheck protection" is a generic term for laws dealing with the direct withdrawal of union dues from public employees' paychecks.  These laws can affect the ability of unions to spend dues on political activities, require employers to get annual permission from employees to withdraw the dues, or ban the practice of automatic withdrawal altogether.  This Arizona Republic story, Public-employee union dues back in legislative spotlight in Arizona, by Mary Jo Pitzl refers to HB 2026, which would require councils or boards of Arizona's municipalities, counties, and fire districts to vote on whether to specifically authorize payroll deduction of union dues.  The bill has a deadline for these entities to vote on continuing the practice.  Otherwise, these employers would be required to cease payroll deduction of union dues.  Another bill, SB 1142, would require that public employers get express permission each year to deduct union dues from members' paychecks.

If we look past the rhetoric of both sides, the employees, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries or victims of these laws, are really just a sidelight.  The real issue here is money and politics.  Those supporting paycheck protection know that payroll deduction make paying union dues a passive process.  If dues are automatically taken out, the amount is less likely to be noticed.  If union dues were paid annually or semi-annually via check or debit, union members would be inclined to notice how much money they are really spending.  The following Wall Street Journal story (Wisconsin Unions See Ranks Drop Ahead of Recall Vote) details how public unions in Wisconsin lost members after dues were no longer paid via payroll deduction.  Less money coming into public employee unions means they have less power to influence politics.

Conversely, public employee unions love to have dues taken directly from members' paychecks as it provides them with a steady and nearly unbreakable source of income.  My union local's by-laws require dues be paid via payroll deduction, and I suspect this is standard practice wherever it is not forbidden by law.  Hence, it is the only way that members can pay union dues, and attempting to pay dues any other way would be grounds for expulsion from the union.  Mr. Hill calls paycheck protection acts anti-union, which may be justifiable only from the standpoint that it interferes with the union management's preferred method of dues collection.  However, Mr. Hill makes no argument for how payroll deduction of dues benefits union members, and he frames the attempts to change the current system of how dues are collected as  an abrogation of members' rights, despite the fact that the current system allows public employee unions to impose a single payment method on members.  The right he defends is one that allows members no choice with their own money.

Behind all the rhetoric of both sides is the psychology of money.  It is the same one that is behind gym memberships.  Someone who pays upfront up for a 12-month gym membership but only uses it sporadically will balk at paying the same amount again next year.  He can look at his past year's usage and see that he did not get his money's worth.  However, if he had signed up for a monthly debit from his bank, he is less likely to consider the total cost and realize how he is wasting his money.  $50 every month will not seem like a lot until he multiplies it out and figures that he paid $600 for something he barely used.

The supporters of paycheck protection laws want union members to make an active, conscious decision to pay dues; the opponents want the payment of dues to remain passive and automatic.  Forcing a conscious decision on union members will make them think about the value they are getting for their money, especially if they pay one large annual sum.  Whether this will affect public employee union membership in Arizona is an open question.  However, if members believe they are receiving adequate value for their money, unions should have nothing to fear from paycheck protection laws since members will continue to pay their dues as always.

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, PSPRS members should realize that this fight is over their money and the influence it buys, not necessarily what is in their best interests. 

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