Are Workers and Their Union the Same?

Larry Sand

The disconnect between many workers and union leadership is wider than ever.

For years, former Executive Director of the National Education Association John Wilson wrote a regular blog post for Education Week. Never shy about his political leanings, the far-left Wilson composed “Teachers and Teacher Unions Are the Same” in 2012, in which he accuses New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and others of “trying to divide teachers from their union.” He claims the dividers are Republicans who don’t respect teachers, their profession or their “right to free association.” (The latter is especially laughable given that teachers in roughly half the country are forced to associate with a union.)

Even more strange, after excoriating Republicans, he admits that teachers “…are not in the pocket of Democrats. The National Education Association is about 40 percent Democratic, 30 percent Republican, and 30 percent unaffiliated. Republican policies that undermine public education by using public dollars for private schools while starving the public schools of adequate funds turns teachers toward the Democratic Party. If Republicans want teachers to respect them, they must change their policies and change their votes in Congress and state legislatures across the country.”

But Mr. Wilson, 30 percent of your teachers are Republicans. So at least, politically speaking, many teachers and their union are most definitely not the same.

The 30 percent number is in line with others released by the union over the years. In 2005, NEA president Reg Weaver said publicly that his union breaks down as one-third Democrat, one-third Republican and one-third other.

Most recently, USA Today education writer Greg Toppo penned “Teacher unions smarting after many members vote for Trump.” Citing NEA officials, he wrote that as late as last September, about 60 percent of the union’s members identified as Republicans or independents. Furthermore, he reported that according to early data, more than one in three teachers voted for Trump.

The most recent teacher union political spending data confirm the disconnect between union leadership and its rank-and-file. In the 2016 election cycle, NEA spent over $30 million on campaign contributions, with just 1 percent of that going to Republicans. The American Federation of Teachers’ partisan spending was even more lopsided. Randi Weingarten’s AFT spent almost $10 million, with a paltry $5,000 (.05 percent) going to GOP candidates.

The chasm between union leaders and their members is not limited to teachers. Overall union voters are estimated to be 40 percent Republican. Yet, according to Center for Union Facts president Rick Berman, Big Labor spent more than $160 million on the 2016 election, with almost 90 percent of it going to Democrats. Berman also points out that since 1990, unions have donated $1.2 billion in direct political donations, 92 percent of which benefited Democrats. He continues, “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to a newly released Center for Union Facts (CUF) analysis of recent union disclosure forms, union bosses sent an additional $530 million to Democrats and liberal special-interest groups from 2012 to 2015 in the form of political advocacy – 99 percent of their entire advocacy budget. While union members voluntarily support political campaigns and ancillary super PACs (the $1.2 billion), the same is not true of political advocacy disguised as worker advocacy (the $530 million). Union members are forced to explicitly object to such spending in order to opt out, an arduous road paved with union intimidation.”

But even with all their leftward spending, the unions haven’t been very successful of late. Presidential voting results show a resounding victory for Trump in states that have a heavy union population. Hillary Clinton did not garner nearly enough of the union vote in the Midwest to put her over the top; except for Minnesota and Illinois, those states all went for Trump. One reason for the political shift is that too many union leaders fail to grasp that you can’t be pro-worker to the point of being anti-business. Union greed kills the host, as was the case with General Motors. Michigan had voted for Democrats nationally since 1992, but flipped in 2016 and went for Trump. Also, according to exit polls, Clinton lost Ohio’s union households to the Republican by 9 points. Adding insult to injury for union bosses is that Republican governors now hold office in 33 states and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in 32 states.

After suffering such a political drubbing, you might think the unions would reconsider some of their more strident positions. But your cat is more likely to bark at the moon. As long as workers are forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment throughout much of the U.S., union bosses have no motivation to change. In fact, as reported by Mike Antonucci, five days after the election, the teacher union-dominated Democracy Alliance – a coalition of leftwing Democrats chaired by NEA Executive Director John Stocks – met to strategize about the years ahead. Featured speakers included the decidedly non-Republican Van Jones, Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison.

Labor Notes claims to be the “voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement.” After the election, its director Mark Brenner wrote, “For too long unions have treated members as an ATM for predetermined priorities or an unruly nuisance that needs to get ‘on program.’ This democracy deficit explains why so many members feel disconnected—and why so many are likely to vote with their feet under right to work.”

Brenner clearly gets the problem, adding that union leaders who want to inspire their members to step up to the task have to mean it when they say “you are the union.”

But union leaders don’t really mean it and will indeed continue to alienate their rank-and-file. No wonder that just 25 percent of current and former union members think their leaders do a good job representing them. And it is hardly surprising that in 2015 private-sector workers had a membership rate of just 6.7 percent. While public sector union membership is at 35.2 percent, many of those will be out the door if SCOTUS lets them do so. Forcing workers to pay tribute to an organization that really doesn’t represent them will ultimately destroy unions. And the blame can be put squarely on the shoulders of a power-hungry, arrogant and out-of-touch union leadership.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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