Is Union Reform Partisan?

Is Union Reform Partisan?

Advocates of public sector union reform have long been accused of playing partisan politics, but the data suggests it is the unions, not the reformers, who are political partisans. According to, a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit research group tracking money in U.S. politics, just the top 20 labor unions over the past 20 years have spent over $500 million on federal election campaigns, and 95% of that spending went to Democrats.

This data is compiled by on their webpage “Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends.” On the chart below the blue bars represent labor union contributions to Democrats, and the red bars represent labor union contributions to Republicans. They show the total reported political contributions for the last eleven two-year election cycles through 2010.  The red bars are scarcely visible.

The next table, which extracts data from the OpenSecrets webpage “Heavy Hitters: Top All Time Donors” (below) shows the top 20 labor union’s political contributions to each party for the same 22 year period. Among most of the major labor unions, the contributions are nearly 100% to Democrats. Overall, 95% of political contributions by labor unions have gone to Democrats, and only 5% to Republicans.

One can argue as to whether or not the agenda and policies of Democrats and Republicans are the cause or the effect of political contributions. But there can be no doubt that the overwhelming preference of organized labor is to contribute to Democrats. Their agenda, as reflected in their political giving, is explicitly partisan.

Because unions are, presumably, grassroots organizations supported by their members, the extent to which unions practice partisan politics becomes a regulatory issue. After all, unless literally 95% of union memberships are comprised of registered Democrats, how can unions, who purport to represent their members, justify allocating 95% of their political spending to Democrats? Could it be because unions are not grassroots organizations, but instead are special interests who have managed to carve out a unique niche in American politics? Should unions have the right to demand an employer fire any employee who doesn’t want to join their ranks? In 28 states, that is the law. Should unions be able to use membership dues in any manner they wish, even if they contribute the money to politicians and causes that are not representative of their memberships?

With public sector unions, the unique ability of unions to compel membership and compel political contributions is compounded because their partisanship violates the principle that government organizations should be politically neutral. Is it appropriate for government workers who police us, protect us, regulate us, rescue us, care for us, and teach our children, to also tell us how to vote? Is it appropriate for public sector unions to spend overwhelming amounts of money on political campaigns to elect the people who they will then negotiate with for pay and benefits? Should public sector unions even be allowed to exist, much less involve themselves in politics, if the government entity they bargain with can simply raise taxes to cover the costs of their negotiated increases to pay, benefits, and headcount? Because in the private sector, at least union negotiators know that if their demands become too costly, the company will go out of business.

It is not partisan to ask these questions when the unions, especially public sector unions, engage in partisan politics. They do this often in defiance of their members own political preferences. In the case of public sector unions, their partisan politics violates the ideal of a politically neutral government workforce, and is not subject to the discipline of the market. It is not partisan to explore reforms that may address these issues.

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