Why Public Sector Unions are “Special” Special Interests
California’s November 2012 statewide ballot included Prop. 32, the “Stop Special Interest Money Now” initiative. Among the provisions included in this campaign finance reform measure was the requirement that public sector unions obtain permission from each member prior to using a portion of their dues to support political campaigns.
It’s hard to precisely determine just how much public sector unions spent to immolate Prop. 32, since their campaign material often combined “Yes on 30” (new taxes), with “No on 32,” meaning resources were being directed at both initiative campaigns. Also, hard dollar campaign spending was only part of the effort; an army of union operatives were activated to defeat Prop. 32 – from public school teachers influencing students and parents to precinct walkers to labor friendly slate mailings. Overall, the unions probably spent about $100 million to defeat Prop. 32.
And their message was consistent: Prop. 32 targets “working families,” it attempts to “silence our voices,” it is “deceptive,” it provides “special exemptions” to the real special interests, “corporations and billionaires.”
Let’s review the veracity of these claims one at a time:
– The average unionized government worker in California earns total compensation that averages well over $100,000 per year, about twice what the average private sector taxpayer earns per year. These are not typical “working families.”
– Prop. 32 merely attempted to require public sector unions to do what every other political participant must do; use money that donors contribute voluntarily. Yet the public sector unions alleged that merely requiring political contributions to be made on an opt-in basis would “silence our voices.”
– Prop. 32’s opponents tagged it the “special exemptions act,” because they felt it was unbalanced – they claimed it targeted public sector unions but didn’t include sufficient campaign finance restrictions on billionaires and corporations. Notwithstanding the fact that Prop. 32 did pretty much everything constitutionally allowable to restrict the campaign spending of all special interests, there is a rank hypocrisy in this statement that deserves further exploration. Because public sector unions are an integral part of America’s special interest elite.
Characteristics of the Special Interest Elite:
(1) Their political agenda differs from – and is often in conflict with – the public interest.
(2) Their top priorities are not informed by ideology, but rather by whatever means achieves their ends.
(3) They will work to influence whatever political party and politicians are amenable to their agenda.
(4) They hold inordinate influence over elections and policymaking.
(5) They have an identity of interest with other elite special interests.
If you review these five characteristics it is certainly arguable that public sector unions belong among the special interest elite. One can suggest that public sector unions are overwhelmingly democratic, and informed by leftist ideology (item 2), but to do so is confusing cause for effect. The priority of government worker unions is money and power, and the ideology of the left supports these ends.
What is often still overlooked by critics of public sector unions, and dismissed by their supporters, is item five: There is an identity of interests between public sector unions and other elite special interests. In fact, public sector unions are the critical, primary broker among elite special interests. Without them, the power and influence of America’s overbuilt financial sector and anti-competitive corporations would be diminished, not enhanced. This is counter-intuitive, but is an utterly crucial point that reformers need to impress upon idealistic, left-leaning voters.
Why Public Sector Unions Are the Most Elite of All Special Interests:
(1) All other powerful special interests have narrowly focused agendas that pertain to their specific industries. This means their participation in politics is generally sporadic; they emerge when there is a threat or opportunity affecting their business, then they withdraw. Often their agendas are in conflict with each other, which tends to attenuate if not cancel out their power.
(2) Public sector unions have one broad agenda – more pay and benefits for public sector workers, and more public sector workers. This agenda supersedes whatever other redeeming programs and rhetoric they may adopt. Ultimately, this agenda is corrupting, because it is utterly apolitical and intrinsically disconnected from any qualitative analysis of what programs and policies are in the public interest.
(3) Unlike all other special interests, public sector unions are inside the government. As term-limited elected officials come and go, the ranking employees of public sector unions know that the union leadership delivers the true continuity. And if other special interests want favorable legislation, or special treatment by the bureaucracy, they know where to go first – not to the politicians, but to the unions.
(4) There is no source of money pouring into politics at nearly the scale and consistency of public sector union dues – in California these dues total well over $1.0 billion per year. Public sector unions deploy these massive sums in order to be actively involved in every political contest, no matter how big or small.
This reality, that public sector unions operate at the heart of the corporate and financial elite, that they broker, enable and corrupt corporate and financial power, is the tragic irony that is lost on California’s electorate. Public sector unions are the foot soldiers of corporatism, because without their blessing and support, crony capitalists would not as successfully lobby for anti-competitive laws, pension bankers would not have a taxpayer-guaranteed virtually unlimited source of funds to invest, and bond underwriters would not be collecting commissions on hundreds of billions in bond issues necessitated by spending deficits. Public sector unions are also the facilitators of authoritarianism, because every new law and every new intrusion on civil liberties is accompanied by a need for more unionized government workers.
The bargain public sector unions have made with the relentlessly consolidating corporate and financial elite is completely at odds with their supposedly egalitarian, supposed ideology. Using their virtually unrestricted, awesomely potent ability to control our politicians, they have carved out for themselves the biggest special exemption of all – they have negotiated an immunity to the economic challenges facing every private sector taxpayer who must compete in the global economy.
Put that into a 30 second television commercial.
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UnionWatch is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.