Want to Stop Big Government? Stop Big Labor

September 30, 2010

Whatever the tea party’s considerable resources this election, it doesn’t have the ability to mail propaganda to tens of millions of households in dozens of states.

One political player -- Big Labor -- does. And unless fiscally conservative activists and pro-taxpayer elected officials attack the source of union bosses’ electoral and lobbying muscle, the goal of rolling back runaway government will remain unattainable, no matter what happens on November 2nd.

The AFL-CIO has targeted many congressional and gubernatorial races. Its mailers aren’t subtle. A U.S. House of Representatives hopeful from Florida “wants to repeat the past,” when “Wall Street wrecked our economy, and America’s middle class paid the price.” A West Virginia U.S. Senate aspirant “wants to ‘unshackle’ [mine] management from safety regulations,” while his opponent “is fighting to make them stronger.” A Minnesota gubernatorial candidate is to blame for his state’s 2007 bridge collapse, because he voted “against funds that may have prevented” the deadly disaster.

The AFL-CIO won’t say what it’s spending on the mailers, but the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees admits that it’s plowing $50 million into the 2010 election -- the Service Employees International Union, $44 million.

Sounds like a lot of money. But it’s couch-cushion change for Big Labor.

To get to the origin of unions’ political might, let’s journey back to the 1930s, when the federal government imposed mandatory “representation” on the private sector. Supporters of the Wagner Act, according to one labor-relations textbook, “recognized that the modern industrial environment rendered obsolete the concept of individual bargaining as the regulator of industrial relations.” So organized labor was permitted to become the exclusive representative of workers in “bargaining units” determined by bureaucrats. Don’t want the union to negotiate on your behalf, hit the bricks. Stick around, and pay up.

The new system was a unconscionable violation of longstanding American principles of individualism and free association -- why should some third party be allowed to control your relationship with your employer? But FDR was in office, the Great Depression was raging, and the nation acquiesced. Two decades later, over a third of employees were unionized. In the 1960s and 1970s, another burst of liberalism produced once-unthinkable, Wagner Act-style legislation for state- and local-government employees.

With access to a huge stream of reliable revenue, labor bosses got into elections and legislation, bigtime. But their growing clout in an area that had nothing to do with wages and benefits made some wonder about the constitutionality of their politicking. Most famously, Harry Beck, an AT&T and U.S. West telephone technician, balked at being compelled to bankroll the Communications Workers of America’s support of gun-control measures and Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign.

In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions -- most the result of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the bravest public-interest law firm you’ve never heard of -- employees won the right to limit the use of their tribute to collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment.

No more dues for politics, right? Not exactly. Unions try everything they can -- peer pressure, bureaucracy, resignation “window periods,” and even the lie that full dues are required -- to suppress dissenters. Even after multiple rulings by the High Court, few employees in unionized workplaces know their rights.

A 2007 analysis by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research concluded that annual receipts for “all private-sector and a substantial minority of public-sector American unions” was $20.1 billion. It’s used wisely. As noted by economics professor Charles W. Baird, staffers “undertake voter registration, education, and turnout campaigns that favor particular candidates” and “man telephone banks and walk the precincts on behalf of union-endorsed candidates.” Dues also fund “‘internal … communications’ (propaganda aimed at workers represented by the union) that favor particular candidates” and “overhead costs, staff salaries, rent, utilities, and postage involved in operating … PACs.”

No political operation -- not the environmental movement, not trade associations, and not tea partiers -- can match unions’ raw power. (In 1995, the AFL-CIO’s organizing director boasted to The New York Times, “Look at the Christian Coalition. They have $25 million. We have $11 billion.”) And as long as federal and state laws permit the accumulation of forced dues, Big Labor will remain as potent as ever.

It looks like election day will deliver a massive thumping to tax-and-spend politicians. Good. But until compulsory unionism in the private and public sectors is abolished, an army of pro-tax, pro-spending advocates and lobbyists will stand in the way of fiscal sanity.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Broad Brook, Connecticut.

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