(Brian M. Johnson) – Any Republican effort to cut back the size of government will run straight into a battle with the unions – not the traditional industrial unions that have long formed the backbone of the Democratic Party, but government unions.
According to data released last week, for the first time in history, more than 50 percent of union members work for the federal, state or local government.
This unprecedented event raises the question: How can a public that wants smaller government achieve that goal when every dollar that goes into that government is paying to build an interest group intent on growing the government?
Unions once represented more than 35 percent of the American work force in the mid-1950s. By 2008, that had plummeted to 12.4 percent, and last year it ticked downward again to 12.3 percent. But that doesn’t quite capture an accurate picture, because there are really two different union movements. In 2009, private-sector unionization fell to 7.2 percent from 7.6 percent in 2008. But the unions’ glimmer of hope remains in an ever-expanding public sector and with the drones of government employees that are increasingly joining their ranks.
There were 15.3 million total union members in the United States in 2009, down 770,000 from the 16.1 million in 2008. Private-sector union membership fell 834,000, but public-sector union membership actually grew by 64,000 in 2009 to 7.9 million. This means 52 percent of all union members work for the government. But what does this mean for the future of organized labor, its influence on public policy decisions and its role in state and local economies?
That growing government union membership is at war with the idea of shrinking government or even delivering today’s level of government services with the same tax rates in the future. The inflated cost of government unionization, by artificially raising wages and increasing bureaucracy, results in higher taxes and fewer non-unionized government services. In Vallejo, Calif., a city made famous for filling bankruptcy in 2008, total compensation for a police officer was more than $190,000 and a firefighter more than $130,000 per year. More than 70 percent of the city’s general fund went toward these exorbitant public safety workers’ salaries.
California state law mandates forced union bargaining sessions with public safety unions (similar federal legislation by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is pending in the U.S. Senate), which forced the city into bankruptcy. Alternatively, states have the option to raise taxes in an attempt to avoid bankruptcy. Government employees in New York City earned on average $106,743 per year in 2008, forcing taxpayers to fund this inflated union wage with an outrageous top marginal tax rate of 47 percent.
There once was a day when working for the government meant a sacrifice for public service. Government employees didn’t face the vagaries of employment in the corporate sector, where jobs come and go, but in return government jobs didn’t come with the salaries and perks of the private sector, either.
Not anymore. The government unions want it all – high pay, stability and a growing work force. And they’re willing to use their growing political clout to get it. Public-sector unions ferociously lobby each level of government for increased spending and oppose tax reductions.
In Oregon, public employees unions spent almost $4 million supporting ballot initiatives to raise personal income and business taxes by $733 million. The Service Employee International Union (SEIU) spent millions in California campaigning for higher oil, gas and liquor taxes. In Arizona, the Arizona Education Association lobbied successfully against repealing a $250 million-a-year statewide property tax. Even in the conservative state of Alabama, the Alabama Education Association’s annual convention endorsed tax increases on businesses, cigarettes and soft drinks – while voting down measures supporting spending restrictions to combat the state’s budget shortfall.
Political activism on behalf of public-sector unions appears to be paying off. Unions have been successful in increasing the demand for additional government services and an expanding bureaucracy. There are now more government agencies and subagencies than ever, and the percentage of union members working for the government are at an all-time high.
By campaigning for increased government, supporting increased spending and opposing tax increases, the public-sector unions ensure that their reign of economic terror will continue.
Brian M. Johnson is the executive director of the Alliance for Worker Freedom and co-author of the forthcoming “2009 Index of Worker Freedom: A National Report Card.”
(Mr. Johnson is Executive Director of the Alliance for Worker Freedom)