Time for Media Muckrakers to Follow Public Sector Union Money and Motives

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
December 10, 2013

Time for Media Muckrakers to Follow Public Sector Union Money and Motives

Back in 2011 a California state legislator told me, off the record, that for years, a secret 7:00 a.m. meeting is held once per week in Sacramento. At this meeting are a handful of top officials representing the major public sector unions active in California. They discuss current legislation, political trends, opposition groups, emerging issues, and coordinate their strategy. Collectively, just within California, these public sector union leaders collect and spend over $1.0 billion in membership dues and fees every year.

Compare this to the supposedly shocking expose published this week by the esteemed U.K. Guardian, entitled “State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax.”

If you haven’t heard of the U.K. Guardian before 2013, you might remember it as the media venue that recently published fugitive Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. With a combined worldwide monthly print and online audience of over 30 million, the Guardian is no lightweight. But they seem to have a bad case of scope insensitivity when it comes to money in politics.

The Guardian reveals that the State Policy Network, an “alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level,” has “an annual warchest of $83m drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers…”

When you spread $83 million across the entire U.S., an obvious question – and one the Guardian ought to be asking – is why this amount of money constitutes anything more than an irritant to America’s hapless, beleaguered public sector unions, who scrape by, nationwide, on annual revenues estimated to be at least $8.0 billion per year. Every dime of that $8.0 billion, by the way, comes from taxpayers.

If you combined the annual budgets of every so-called “right wing think tank” in America, including the big independents like the Heritage Foundation, it is unlikely their combined budgets would exceed $250 million, one-fortieth as much as the public sector unions.

And clearly, one must add to the $8.0 billion annual financial heft of America’s public sector unions the allied influence of academia (including K-12 public education), the entertainment industry and the media – actors of incalculable cultural impact whose bias, on balance, swings reliably to the left.

The campaign to taint the work of think tanks, “right wing” think tanks in particular, is serious business. It is part of the well-established and growing tactic of attacking the sources of funding and their alleged ideology and motives, instead of considering the facts and logic behind arguments one finds disagreeable. That’s not ideal behavior, but perhaps comes with the territory when practiced by interest groups who openly oppose a given policy or ideology. It’s inexcusable when practiced by members of the media.

Journalists and editorial boards, starting with the U.K. Guardian, may wish to consider the following points:

(1)  When presented with editorial submissions or press releases announcing studies or proposals coming from think tanks, or from any other source, a journalist’s primary duty is to verify facts and recognize intellectually honest logic. The source is not as important as whether or not the material they produce is factual, honest and relevant. Put another way, you can’t smother the truth simply because you don’t like the messenger.

(2)  There is a diversity within the so-called “right-wing” that is often overlooked by journalists hoping to put a story into context. The “right wing” includes fiscal conservatives, fiscal moderates, fiscal libertarians, social conservatives, social moderates, and social libertarians. And within and between each of these somewhat arbitrary classifications there is intense debate. There is no monolithic “right-wing.”

(3)  There is nothing inherently “right wing” about public sector union reform. Great heroes of the labor movement, including Franklin Roosevelt and George Meany, were outspoken in their opposition to unionized government. Social and fiscal liberals should be concerned that the money that used to go to social programs and infrastructure is now being used instead to pay public employees, on average, twice the level of pay and benefits earned by private sector workers.

(4)  Upon close examination, there is little or no basis to the accusation that wealthy donors to conservative think tanks are trying to benefit themselves economically. It is not by opposing, but by allying themselves with environmentalist extremists and powerful unions, that crony capitalists squelch competition, constrict supply, and enjoy bigger profits. There are plenty of businesspeople who play that game, but most of them are on the left – and instead of being excoriated they are exalted. Why?

(5)  Managing the mega-trends Americans face – a shrinking middle-class, automation, globalization, and an aging population – isn’t going to be easy. But public sector unions have “negotiated” for themselves a separate dispensation with the wealthy elite they routinely demonize and supposedly protect us from – a package of pay and benefits that it is absolutely impossible to provide to all citizens. The consequences (to reiterate) are the same as those consequences attendant to the inflated bonus packages for Wall Street billionaires and inflated prices charged by corporate monopolies – they raise the cost of living for everyone else.

(6)  Taxpayer funded benefits and entitlements, whether you think they should be munificent or minimal, must be financially sustainable, and equally important, must be earned by ALL citizens, public or private, according to the same set of formulas and incentives.

The U.K. Guardian has impressive journalistic reach and demonstrated courage. They have earned the respect of their readers, now it is time for them to challenge those readers with stories that don’t adhere to an overly simplistic world view. For starters, they can put a fly on the wall in that office, somewhere in Sacramento, California, where the public sector union bosses meet each week to make plans for everyone.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.

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