Labor Unions: The inventor of the “Weekend”; creators of minimum wage; and women’s rights pioneers. Pretty strong history. They have been the voice of the employee, fighting for fair pay, reasonable hours, and better working conditions. But for all the historical gains they’ve made for society over the course of their history, one now has to wonder whether they are doing more harm than good.
One of the major problems has been their spreading influence. Originally, they were limited to the private sector, attempting to pressure factory bosses into providing competitive wages. But as Steven Malanga explains , unions have recently undergone a change that is putting enormous financial pressure on those they originally sought to help. “[T]he union movement in America crossed a crucial threshold recently, as membership in public sector unions surpassed private sector union enrollment for the first time.”
The problem is that as government workers increasingly become dominated by the labor movement a conflict of interest develops. Labor groups typically require members to pay union dues. These dues go typically fund a wide variety of activities, but a growing percentage is being devoted to political lobbying and campaigning. For instance, the SEIU, one of the largest and most aggressive unions, announced that it would spend $80 million in the 2008 presidential elections. The AFL-CIO also spent an estimated $200 million on the 2008 elections.
But as these private sector unions decline in membership, their influence and money is being replaced by public sector unions. While only about 8 percent of private sector workers are unionized, nearly 40 percent of public sector workers carry the union label. The growing pervasiveness of unions in government is creating a conflict of enormous for those which government is intended to serve – the taxpayers.
This tension is most evident in the debate over tax increases. Public sector unions, by their vary nature, create a vicious circle that taxpayers cannot escape. Public sector unions collect dues, working to elect their preferred candidates (themselves and more like them) elected. Once elected they can pass union friendly legislation. Perhaps the most visible example in today’s debate is generous pension benefits for public sector employees such as teachers, policemen and government workers. Eventually, as we are seeing in the burgeoning number of underfunded pension plans, the cushy benefit packages run into financial trouble. To pay off the pension debts, taxes on the private sector must be levied. And who is there to propose and help these tax increases pass – elected union officials.
Unions, once elected, become a self-perpetuating and growing parasite. They force dues, elect more unions members, push for union benefits, and then bail themselves out when they don’t work. Throughout it all the taxpayer is left out in the cold.
This problem doesn’t exist in mere hypotheticals. As Steven Malanga writes ,
“Find a tax increase campaign and you’re almost certain to find a government union behind it. . . . In fact, since the budget squeeze hit states and municipalities starting in 2008, such tax and spend campaigns have been typical. Researchers at the Heritage Foundation counted some 25 public union-driven efforts in that time. They include successful efforts by Arizona’s unions to raise the state’s sales tax earlier this year, a ballot initiative in Oklahoma sponsored by the state’s teachers’ unions to raise education spending by $1 billion, a successful $8 million campaign in Oregon by public unions to defeat initiatives seeking to roll back corporate and personal income tax hikes, and a $4 million advertising effort this past spring designed to pressure New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to raise taxes in his state, which failed.”
The ongoing recession is beginning to uncover the cushy union pension packages and the resultant tax campaigns. Increased awareness is the only way to break the union cycle of money and influence. Government is having trouble affording its basic functions, can it really afford to pay off union debts as well? Unions can get back to doing good, but to return to their true mission it appears as if they need a stern rebuke in this year’s elections.
by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee