Do Big Unions Buy Politicians?

1.6M Views
Jun 7, 2015

Who poses the biggest threat to America's economy by striking deals with crooked politicians? Big Oil, Big Pharma, or Big Unions? Daniel DiSalvo, political science professor at the City College of New York, gives the answer.

Chicago spends almost 4 times as much as Dallas for trash removal. The difference? Chicago is heavily unionized.

  • The inflation of costs for public services is one of the common results of public sector unions influencing government officials.View Source
  • The heavily unionized city of Chicago spends $272 per ton of trash removal. Compare that to Dallas, which spends $74/ton, and Scottsdale, Arizona, which spends $32/ton.View Source

Hundreds of union pension plans are in critical status because they promise more than governments can actually pay.

  • Hundreds of union pensions are in endangered or critical status.View Source
  • In 2013 Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy, in part because of unfunded pension obligations that unions had demanded.View Source

Detroit is the largest city in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy. A key reason: unfunded pension obligations negotiated by unions.

  • Hundreds of union pensions are in endangered or critical status.View Source
  • In 2013 Detroit became the largest city in U.S. history to declare bankruptcy, in part because of unfunded pension obligations that unions had demanded.View Source

Government unions make public services more expensive.

  • The inflation of costs for public services is one of the common results of public sector unions influencing government officials.View Source
  • The heavily unionized city of Chicago spends $272 per ton of trash removal. Compare that to Dallas, which spends $74/ton, and Scottsdale, Arizona, which spends $32/ton.View Source

Government employee unions are bigger and more influential on the state and local level than Big Banks, Big Oil, and Big Pharma.

  • The most powerful players in politics are public employee unions. Public employee unions include employees at every level of government, including teachers, firefighters, post office employees, and millions of other state employees. These unions have influence at the local, state, and federal level. Since 1990, these unions have contributed over $309 million in federal elections—an overwhelming amount of that given to Democrats. As private union membership has fallen, public union membership has grown. In 2009, for the first time in US history, public union membership (7.9 million) grew larger than private union membership (7.4 million). Nevertheless, the rise of public sector unions was not inevitable. In the first half of the 20th century, courts ruled against collective bargaining by government employees. Even FDR opposed the unionization of the government’s workforce. The common consensus in the 1930s was that such bargaining would take away decision-making power from the nation’s elected officials, yet here we are, with unionization among government employees peaking.View Source

Government employee unions are now larger than private unions.

  • In 2009, for the first time in US history, public union membership (7.9 million) grew larger than private union membership (7.4 million).View Source
  • Public employee unions include employees at every level of federal, state, and local government, including teachers, firefighters, post office employees, and millions of other state employees.View Source

Government unions offer pensions that often vastly exceed benefits in the private sector and result in massive budget deficits.

  • Public sector unions promise employees pensions that are often far more generous than those offered in the private sector, but there’s a reason the private sector doesn’t provide them: they’re often unsustainable. Just last year, the Labor Department notified 150 union pension funds that their status was deemed “critical,” meaning that they lack the basic assets to meet 65% of their upcoming need. The same year, the Teamsters union started notifying retirees that benefits will be cut. In 2013 Detroit became the largest city in US history to declare bankruptcy, partially because of unfunded pension obligations. Here is a list of hundreds of pensions that are in “endangered” or “critical” status. As many are learning firsthand, public sector union reform must come to avoid more complications.View Source

In 2010, unions in Illinois backed an increase in the state income tax. Why? To help fund lucrative union pensions.

  • A 2014 study found that increased political spending by unions increases income and employment levels for state employees.View Source
  • Public unions often support higher taxes, which give them more bargaining power, as was the case in California in 2012.View Source
  • In 2010 unions in Illinois backed an increase in the state income tax in order to fund union pensions.View Source

The pressure gov. employee unions put on politicians often lead to higher wages for gov. employees—and higher taxes in the private sector.

  • One 2014 study found that increased political spending by unions and collective bargaining “are associated with higher incomes for state and local employees and with higher public employment, both across state and local government overall as well as within the education sector.” In other words, the union strategy of “buying” politicians works. However, public unions often want more than just higher wages. They also support such measures as higher taxes, which give them more bargaining power. In California in 2012, unions backed an increase in the sales tax and income tax, deliberately driving up costs to citizens for their own benefit. In 2010 unions in Illinois backed an increase in the state income tax in order to fund union pensions. A stark example of the impact of unions can be seen in the cost of trash removal. Measured by cost per ton, the heavily unionized city of Chicago spends $272 per ton of trash removal. By contrast, Dallas, Texas spends $74, and Scottsdale, Arizona spends only $32. This kind of inefficiency is common where unions dominate. Their positions on these matters make sense because any move to shrink the size of government is a move to shrink the power and influence of public sector unions.View Source

Government employee unions contributed $270 million to Democrats and $30 million to Republicans in federal elections over the last 25 years.

  • Since 1990 public sector unions have contributed over $300 million in federal elections, around 90 percent of that given to Democrats.View Source
  • In the 2012 election cycle, public sector unions spent $44.9 million on federal campaigns, and in the 2014 election cycle, they spent $53 million.View Source

Government sector unions “buy” politicians by using their influence to help them get elected in exchange for favors once they take office.

  • Public sector unions exist in order to negotiate favorable contracts for their members. Because they need friendly politicians to agree to these contracts, the unions have created extensive political machines to get their preferred candidates into office. As Victor Gotbaum, a union leader in New York City, said, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Because unions get their money from membership dues, the better their contract negotiations, the more money they have to spend on elections to help their preferred candidates. In the 2012 election cycle, public sector unions spent $44.9 million on federal campaigns, and in the 2014 election cycle they spent $53 million. Even with all the money they funnel into federal campaigns, unions likely play their most significant role by getting out the vote in local school board races and races for state and local office, wielding massive influence in such small elections.View Source

Public sector unions exert immense influence over politicians, particularly Democrats, to whom around 90% of their campaign donations go.

  • Unions have created extensive political machines to get union-preferred candidates into office.View Source
  • Because unions get their money from membership dues, the better their contract negotiations are, the more money they have to get preferred candidates elected.View Source
  • Since 1990, public sector unions have contributed over $300 million in federal elections, around 90 percent of that given to Democrats.View Source

Government employee unions contributed $300 million to federal elections over the last 25 years—around 90% of that given to Democrats.

  • Since 1990 public sector unions have contributed over $300 million in federal elections, around 90 percent of that given to Democrats.View Source
  • In the 2012 election cycle, public sector unions spent $44.9 million on federal campaigns, and in the 2014 election cycle, they spent $53 million.View Source

Public sector unions and pro-union politicians strike deals that endanger democracy.

  • Unions have created extensive political machines to get union-preferred candidates into office.View Source
  • Because unions get their money from membership dues, the better their contract negotiations are, the more money they have to get preferred candidates elected.View Source
  • Since 1990, public sector unions have contributed over $300 million in federal elections, around 90 percent of that given to Democrats.View Source

Government employee unions pressure politicians to make decisions that benefit unions—and taxpayers end up paying the price. 

  • A 2014 study found that increased political spending by unions increases income and employment levels for state employees.View Source
  • Public unions often support higher taxes, which give them more bargaining power, as was the case in California in 2012.View Source
  • In 2010 unions in Illinois backed an increase in the state income tax in order to fund union pensions.View Source

Ever hear complaints about Big Banks, Big Oil and Big Pharma? I'll bet you have. But there's another "Big" that you rarely hear about -- Big Unions. 

And I'm not talking about private company unions -- like auto and steel workers. Only 6.7% of workers belong to private sector unions. No, I'm talking about Public Employee Unions.

They're very big. And very powerful. Far bigger and more powerful than most people know. In fact, the impact they have on how state and local governments operate makes Big Banks, Big Oil and Big Pharma look small by comparison. But before I explain why, I should explain who the Public Employee Unions are. They are the unions that represent policeman, fireman, sanitation workers, teachers, and the vast army of others -- the bureaucrats -- who administer city, state and federal governments. 

The public service unions negotiate on behalf of these workers for their wages, benefits, and working conditions. And who is the on other side of the table? Our elected representatives, the people in charge of spending the money we pay to government in taxes.   

Think about this for a moment and you will immediately realize that the goal of the public employee unions is to negotiate with union-friendly politicians. 

And the way to get friendly with a politician is to help him get elected. Which is exactly what the unions do. First, they have a lot of money. In many states, working for the government is a closed shop: that is, to work for the government you have to pay dues to the union. This guarantees these unions a large membership and a large pot of cash. Spreading this money around, especially in local elections, goes a long way. 

Second, unions provide union-friendly candidates, at no charge, with seasoned political activists to help run campaigns. These activists marshall other union members to put up campaign signs, work the phones, and gather up loyal voters on election day. 

This is a proven strategy. And candidates, especially in the big cities where there are a lot of public employees, know it. Courting union support is critical to victory.

"We will fight for a fair contract!" New Jersey gubernatorial candidate, Jon Corzine, said to a rally of 10,000 public workers in 2006. But fight who for a fair contract? The person the unions would be "fighting" if Corzine were to win the election (he did) is . . .  Corzine!

The Speaker of the New York State Assembly once told a United Federation of Teachers rally "I and my colleagues in the Assembly majority will be your best friends . . . in Albany." Exactly right.

In California in 2010 an official of the Service Employees International Union, known by its initials, the SEIU, told elected officials: "We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory . . . Come November, if you don't back our program, we'll get you out office."

Again, exactly right. As Dan Walters of The Sacramento Bee wrote, "public employee unions wield immense, even hegemonic influence over the Democratic majorities in the [California] state legislature."

What is the consequence of all this power? The most obvious consequence is that cities and states overpay their workers -- by a lot.  

Trash collection in Dallas, Texas, a state whose government workers are not unionized, costs $74 per ton. Trash collection in Chicago, whose government workers are unionized, costs $231 per ton. These kinds of inefficiencies exist everywhere public unions dominate. 

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is the pension arrangements that provide public employees with retirement benefits that vastly exceed the retirement benefits in the private sector. Four cities in California -- Vallejo, Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino -- have declared bankruptcy largely because of the burden of paying public employee pensions. The same is true of Detroit, the nation's largest bankruptcy ever. 

And it's only getting worse. By 2030 the number of retired public workers will equal the number of working public workers. 

You can read more about this in my book Government against Itself, but suffice it to say this is not a pretty picture. All this spending on public service unions crowds out tax money for things we need -- such as better roads, services and schools. 

Finally, some courts and politicians have summoned the courage to make much needed reforms. But it's never easy, as we saw in Wisconson in when thousands of union protesters overran the state capitol for weeks. 

But reform is coming. It must. If it doesn't, cities like Detroit will be the rule, not the exception. 

So, the next time someone complains about Big Banks, Big Oil or Big Pharma, ask if they are equally concerned about Big Unions. 

They should be. 

I'm Daniel DiSalvo, assistant professor of Political Science at the City College of New York.

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