Public Union: Public Enemy

5.5M Views
Jul 16, 2018

Public-sector unions have been gaming the political system for decades, bankrupting whole cities and plunging states into massive debt. How did this happen and can it be stopped? Akash Chougule, senior policy fellow for Americans for Prosperity, has the answers in this sobering video from Prager University.

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Public-sector unions force their members to pay dues that support liberal politicians and causes. 

  • Public-sector unions use dues to support and elect union-friendly politicians, whether or not union members agree with those politicians. In states without “right-to-work” laws, even workers who aren’t in the union have been forced to pay union dues.View Source
  • Union dues are often used to promote a progressive social agenda and not for helping union members.View Source
  • In Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing public-sector union members to support causes they may not agree with is a violation of the First Amendment.View Source
  • Related reading: “No More Forced-riders: Janus Decision a Victory for First Amendment” – Akash ChouguleView Source

Unfunded government employee pension obligations have reached 6 trillion dollars nationwide, putting some states on the brink of collapse. 

  • Unfunded public pension obligations are estimated to be over six trillion dollars nationwide.View Source
  • When the funds for public pensions run out, taxpayers have to pay for current and future retirees.View Source
  • When Detroit filed bankruptcy in 2013, public sector unions were a major contributing factor.View Source
  • In 2017, Illinois owed over $250 billion to public-sector pensions and had their state bond rating downgraded to Baa3 status — just above junk bonds.View Source

Unlike private-sector employees, unionized government employees receive large pensions—and many states are suffering because of it. 

  • Pensions barely exist in the private sector anymore for one simple reason: they are much too expensive.View Source
  • Public-sector pensions are paid for by the taxpayer, who has no say in the negotiations.View Source
  • When Detroit filed bankruptcy in 2013, public sector unions were a major contributing factor by “significantly and substantially increase government contributions to pensions, while reducing employee contributions.”View Source
  • When their pension is taken into account, a New York City public school teacher is a millionaire by net worth.View Source

Illinois is on the verge of collapse due to government employee pensions. 

  • In 2017, Illinois owed over $250 billion to public-sector pensions and had their state bond rating downgraded to Baa3 status — just above junk bonds.View Source
  • Illinois owes $11,000 in public-sector pensions for every person in the state.View Source
  • Illinois spends the same amount on pensions as on police and firefighters.View Source
  • Unfunded public pension obligations are estimated to be over six trillion dollars nationwide.View Source

When joining and paying a union becomes voluntary, workers leave in droves. Under 11% of the American workforce are union members.

  • When joining and paying the union becomes voluntary, workers leave in droves. Just 10.7% of the American workforce was a union member in 2016, the lowest level since the number was first tracked in 1983.View Source
  • In 2015, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) privately estimated that almost half its members would opt out of fees if given the choice.View Source
  • Related reading: “Supreme Court case could give public employees more freedom” – Akash ChouguleView Source

Public-sector unions are losing their power because millions of workers don’t want to be pawns for unions’ political agendas.

  • A 2016 study found that less than 11% of the American workforce were members of a union, the lowest level since the number was first tracked in 1983.View Source
  • Over two-dozen states have now passed “right-to-work” laws stating that no worker can be forced to join or pay a union as a condition of employment.View Source
  • In Janus v. AFSCME, the Court ruled that public employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues against their will because it was a violation of free speech.View Source

Public-sector unions spend far more money and energy on lobbying for their political agenda than bargaining for their members.

  • In 2016, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union spent $19 million more on lobbying than on bargaining for its members.View Source
  • According to a 2016 Heritage Foundation study, only 6% of union members nationwide had voted for the union that represented them.View Source
  • Related video: “Do Big Unions Buy Politicians?” – Daniel DiSalvoView Source

Why is it so hard to fire a poor-performing government employee? Blame public-sector unions.

  • It is extremely difficult to fire a unionized government employee, no matter how incompetent they might be.View Source
  • According to one union contract in Michigan, employees could be caught drunk at work five times before being fired.View Source
  • Related video: “Teachers Unions vs. Students” – Terry MoeView Source

For most of American history, unionizing government workers was considered undemocratic—even liberal icon FDR strongly opposed it.

  • Liberal icon President Franklin Roosevelt was a very strong supporter of private sector unions, but a very strong opponent of public-sector unions.View Source
  • In 1937 FDR said, “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining… cannot be transplanted into the public service...”View Source
  • Roosevelt recognized that public-sector unions could hold the government hostage at will. Roosevelt said this situation was “unthinkable and intolerable.”View Source
  • In 1943 New York state’s highest court called government unions “not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded.”View Source

In order to win the support of union leaders, JFK promised in 1960 to allow the anti-democratic unionization of government employees. 

  • Public-sector unions were considered a threat to democracy up until the late 1950s.View Source
  • In the late 1950s, New York City and Wisconsin defied precedent and allowed their public employees to unionize.View Source
  • John F. Kennedy sought to win the support of union leadership in the 1960 presidential election by promising to allow federal employees to unionize.View Source
  • Kennedy fulfilled that promise with Executive Order 10988 in 1962.View Source

How would you like to fund politicians with whom you strongly disagree?

Not interested?

How about if I… forced you?

How would I do that?

Well, what if I said, “If you don’t pay, you lose your job.”

For decades, millions of state and local government workers—police, firefighters, teachers, and others—have been forced to make that choice.

And who forces them? 

Public-sector unions; that is, unions who represent public-sector employees.

How? It’s pretty straightforward.

First, they demand employees pay hundreds of dollars in union dues as a condition of employment—meaning if they don’t pay, they get fired. Next, they use that money to support and elect union-friendly politicians. Then they negotiate contracts with those same politicians—kind of like negotiating with yourself. It’s a sweet deal—unless you’re a worker who doesn’t agree with those union-friendly politicians. Or the taxpayer who has to foot the bill for those union contracts.

This game plan is not a secret. Here’s what the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees say on their website: "We elect our bosses, so we've got to elect politicians who support us and hold those politicians accountable."

These perverse incentives might help explain why, for most of American history, pretty much no one thought that unionizing government workers was a good idea.

This includes liberal icon President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a very strong supporter of private-sector unions, but a very strong opponent of public-sector unions. Here’s what he said on the subject in 1937: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining…cannot be transplanted into the public service...”

Roosevelt recognized that public-sector unions could hold the government hostage at will. They could simply threaten to walk off the job if they didn’t get what they wanted. Sanitation workers, for example, could put public health at risk by refusing to collect the garbage. Other public employees would have similarly disruptive power. This was, Roosevelt believed, “unthinkable and intolerable.”

In 1943, New York state’s highest court agreed, calling government unions “not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded.”

In the late 1950s, New York City and Wisconsin defied this view and allowed their public employees to unionize. But it was President John F. Kennedy who opened the floodgates. In order to win the support of union leadership in the 1960 presidential election, he promised to allow federal employees to unionize—and fulfilled that promise with Executive Order 10988 in 1962. It was a shrewd political move, but a bad deal for the country, and its consequences are still being felt today as public-sector unionization spread rapidly in the decades that followed.

Today, unions wield tremendous power in government. Try to fire a poor-performing government worker in New York City or Los Angeles. Or almost any unionized government employee anywhere. It’s extremely difficult—if not impossible—no matter how incompetent they might be. According to one union contract in Michigan, employees could be caught drunk at work five times before being fired.

And then there are the pension plans—income paid out to government workers after they retire. Pensions barely exist in the private sector anymore. They’re much too expensive. But they’re standard for public-sector unions, and have bankrupted cities like Detroit, and have government-union-heavy states like Illinois on the brink of financial calamity. 

Unfunded pension obligations—that is, money that the government doesn’t have but has promised to government retirees—are anywhere from four to six trillion dollars nationwide. Over $250 billion of that belongs to Illinois alone.

But fortunately, there is some hope. Today, 28 states have passed “right-to-work” laws stating that no worker can be forced to join or pay a union as a condition of employment.

When joining and paying the union becomes voluntary, the same thing invariably happens: workers leave in droves. And thus, the union’s ability to manipulate the system declines sharply.

Now the US Supreme Court has extended this right to public employees in the other 22 states as well. In Janus v. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Court ruled that public employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues against their will.

Millions of public employees don’t want to be pawns for the union agenda. Thanks to this ruling, they no longer have to be.

And we, the taxpayers, have a fresh opportunity to make sure that our politicians work for us—not the unions.

I’m Akash Chougule, Senior Policy Fellow at Americans for Prosperity, for Prager University.

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