Public sector unions’ political power, not just their economic power, must be curtailed

Kevin D. Williamson gets to the source of the intense heat in the debate in the states:  massive political power is at stake.  Here are the money grafs:

Public-sector unions are enormously important political players, including in those states where their collective-bargaining rights are limited or nonexistent…  19 percent of federal workers are unionized, but 30 percent of state workers are, and 43 percent of local workers. These are very high levels of unionization across the board — only 8 percent of private-sector workers are union members…  these unions do not influence public policy mainly through engaging in collective bargaining. They influence it by determining the outcome of elections.

And “determining the outcome” is no overstatement. Many union critics in the past few days have referenced Stanford professor Terry M. Moe’s fascinating paper “Political Control and the Power of the Agent,” published by the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization in 2005, citing a single extraordinary fact: In the elections Professor Moe studied, union support was as valuable as incumbency in determining winners. That fact is, in and of itself, sobering: Incumbency is generally the most powerful factor in elections — short of a major scandal or similar political catastrophe, incumbents most often are relatively secure in their reelections. The fact that union support turns out to be not only as powerful a factor but, in fact, a slightly more powerful factor in the most significant contests demands a reevaluation of our fundamental thinking about who is really in charge of our state and local governments

Money is certainly a factor in public-sector unions’ electoral influence. Despite the Left’s panicky talk about “corporate money” shaping our elections, unions are almost always either the top spenders or in the top few at the federal and state levels. The biggest-spending unions, and those who provide the most critical operational support to Democratic campaigns (staffing phone banks, doing door-to-door retail politics, volunteering for get-out-the-vote efforts, channeling the “walking around money” that delivers vote blocs in big-city elections, filing lawsuits to stop reform proposals), are public-sector unions. As Professor Moe reports, “Studies of the U.S. states have asked experts to rank interest groups according to their influence on public policy. Throughout the 1990s, the teachers unions came out number one on the list, outdistancing general business organizations, trial lawyers, doctors, utilities, bankers, environmentalists, and even state AFL-CIO affiliates.” …

These facts suggest that in a great many cases — a great many of the most significant political cases — elected officials answer to public-sector unions more than public-sector unions answer to elected officials. That is not democracy; it is a caste system given democratic form.

A reminder: All of the above is true both for states in which unions have collective-bargaining authority and for those which they do not. In Texas, for instance, the teachers’ unions are an extraordinarily powerful political force, with the Texas State Teachers’ Association running an influential PAC that reliably doles out great heaps of money, largely to Democrats, in multi-thousand-dollar increments. How powerful is the TSTA? Powerful enough that it was able to persuade school districts to use their payroll departments to collect PAC donations out of teachers’ paychecks, in violation of state law. Meditate on that for a second: These weren’t union dues being deducted out of government employees’ paychecks, but PAC donations. This is the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency deducting contributions to the coal lobby’s PAC out of its employees’ paychecks — and this is in Texas, where the government unions are allegedly as defenseless as newborn babes in the woods. Texas’s teachers’ unions, like their counterparts across the country, have been extraordinarily effective in fighting most meaningful school-reform efforts, from vouchers to school choice to greater accountability measures — and all of this without collective-bargaining power…

The big money and the unions already are on the same side: The unions are the big money; they are the oligarchy…  The facts suggest that the force is neither small nor countervailing, but large and prevailing. At the state and local levels, unions run the show. They run it financially, and run it by turning out at the polls…

Many of our states are facing serious fiscal crises now and in the future for reasons not related to the recent recession. Beyond the looming crisis in Medicaid, the most troublesome factors for many states are union pensions and retiree health-care benefits, which are carrying unfunded liabilities estimated to run as high as $3 trillion.  The most significant problems faced by these states are not short-term results of the recession; they are ruinously expensive wealth transfers to public-sector union members

If one takes the trouble to limit one’s attention to public-sector work forces and public-sector unions, as Cato’s Chris Edwards does here, then one discovers: “As the union share increases, a state tends to have a higher government debt load. . . . The correlation is likely caused by the fact that unionized government workers are powerful lobby groups that push for higher government-worker compensation and higher government spending in general.” …

The public sector has relatively less clout at the national level (though it has a great deal) because its influence is diluted in a sea of other influences. But when it comes to state government or local bond issues — two titanic problems in our public finances — the public sector and its unions dominate, and will continue to dominate unless we either severely reduce its members’ numbers or enact very strong formal barriers to their voting themselves money out of the nation’s treasuries.

Scott Walker has not overshot, but undershot.

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