By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — While organized labor’s strength may be waning overall, public-sector unions are retaining their numbers and pumping up their power to push public policy at the taxpayers’ expense, according to a new report by a conservative, free-market think tank.
The Manhattan Institute’s pointed report, “Dues and Deep Pockets: Public-Sector Unions’ Money Machine,” released Wednesday, doesn’t mince words.
Public-sector unions, unlike other advocacy organizations in the political process, have used mandatory revenue and membership streams through “dues checkoff” rules and “agency shop” laws to build their political base and push policies that sustain themselves and government benefits at ballooning public costs, the report asserts.
“As a result, public-sector unions bring vast resources to their political activities at the federal, state, and local levels,” the analysis states. “They make direct donations to candidates and parties, fund issue ads in parallel campaigns, provide get-out-the-vote ground operations, run campaigns for and against ballot measures, and engage in extensive lobbying efforts.”
And their members overwhelmingly vote Democrat.
The force of those campaigns has been on display nowhere more than in Wisconsin, said the study’s author, Daniel DiSalvo, senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership.
DiSalvo, like many others, asserts the Badger State and its spate of recall elections, driven in large part by a law that stripped collective bargaining from most unionized public employees, will serve as the litmus test for collective-bargaining reform nationally — perhaps validating the measures or slowing their momentum.
“Wisconsin has changed the way the game is played in the future so that the next financial crisis is not in such a deep hole,” said DiSalvo, who also serves as assistant professor of political science at The City College of New York.
Organized labor officials and a political observer countered that the conservative Manhattan Institute has an agenda in its research and that a number of business special interests in particular have deeper pockets and more power in pushing policy, nationally and in Wisconsin.
The AFL-CIO declined comment on the report, having not seen it Wednesday. But the labor organization pointed to the Center for Responsive Politics' Open Secrets website, which tracks campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures.
Seven of the top 10 political action committee contributors in the previous filing cycle, for instance, are either businesses or organizations friendly with pro-business and Republican causes.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ranked fifth on the list, contributing nearly $1.32 million to campaigns, with 98 percent of that going to Democrats in the 2011-12 period. The Credit Union Association, not part of organized labor, finished eighth, at $1.18 million. Technology giant Honeywell International topped the list, with more than $1.74 million in contributions.
Most of the business-related political action committees on the list, however, with the exception of Every Republican is Crucial, divided their contributions to both parties more evenly, in some cases giving only slightly more to Republican causes.
Unions topped all comers in lobbying muscle in the first part of 2011, according to the latest figures from Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board, which oversees the state’s elections and campaigns.
Four labor organizations spent $6.3 million combined — about a quarter of all lobbying dollars — to influence the Wisconsin political process during the period.
The spending came at the height of the battle over Wisconsin’s controversial Act 10, the bill, now law, that curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees, capping wage negotiations at the rate of inflation and ending bargaining on benefits.
The law requires public-sector unions to hold annual votes on recertification.
Labor unions last year spent an estimated $25 million-plus on campaigns to recall six Republican senators who voted for Act 10 and related political activity, according to the Manhattan Institute study.
Last summer, voters ousted two of the six senators, narrowing the GOP's Senate majority from 19-14 to 17-16.
Democrats and organized labor, who saw Act 10 as a war on collective bargaining, this year have waged historic recall campaigns against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the father and face of Act 10, fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, and four GOP senators.
In total, special interest groups, candidates and political committees spent a record $43.9 million on nine legislative recall elections last year, according to an analysis by the liberal-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The group’s review found Democrats outspent Republicans by about $3 million, and that outside special interests from both sides of the political battle pumped in $34.5 million.
Political observers expect spending on the upcoming recall elections, tentatively slated for June, to top $100 million.
Dissecting the missions
Scott Furlong, professor of political science and an expert in interest group influence at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said he doesn’t see unions any differently than any other type of public advocacy group in their efforts to influence public policy and elections.
“There is a sort of special-relationship tie into policy, but a lot of these public-sector unions are not policy-making practitioners,” he said. “Yes, they may have a greater civic engagement, a greater interest in what is going on in politics … but honestly, isn’t that what we want with our citizens?”
But the Manhattan Institute’s DiSalvo said unlike other interest groups, such as the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, which must expend time and resources to raise membership and financial support, organized labor in more than half of the states is legally guaranteed members and funding through dues.
And that money often goes to campaigns and issues that some union members don’t agree with.
As a New York professor at a public, unionized school, DiSalvo said he lives the reality of compulsory union fees.
“I am not a member of the union but I am compelled to pay agency fees,” he said, noting “Agency Shop” laws, stipulating that nonunion workers in unionized organizations must pay fees because they receive the benefits of organized labor.
DiSalvo said he pays about $1,000 a year for that “benefit.” He could exercise a “clawback” provision that allows a partial fee refund for money not specially marked for collective bargaining, but he said the process is often laborious and results in the return of a relatively small portion of the fee.
Wisconsin’s reform ended dues checkoff for public employees, which had long required the government to withhold a portion of the employees’ salary to cover union dues or agency fees.
The Manhattan Institute study, noting research that had previously appeared in its publication, said veteran Wisconsin teachers have paid as much as $1,100 a year in union dues.
Wisconsin Reporter attempted to contact the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, to ask about the union dues figures and other assertions in the report, but WEAC did not return phone calls.
Neither did AFL-CIO of Wisconsin nor the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees.
Financial muscle, sustained numbers
DiSalvo in the report notes the financial strength of the nation’s largest labor unions, thanks to dues.
In 2010, AFSME reported income of $211,806,537, and the National Education Association generated income of nearly $400 million.
Union officials assert those numbers are diminutive in comparison to the funding available to pro-business causes funded by the nation’s largest corporations.
By comparison, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business trade organization, had a budget of $258 million in 2010, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek Nov. 3, 2010, cover story.
Unions have seen their ranks reduced to 11.8 percent of the nation’s workforce during the past generation, from about a third of all workers in the 1950s, and about 20 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Public-sector workers boasted a union membership rate of 37 percent, more than five times that of private-sector workers. Public-sector union numbers have remained fairly constant for several years, despite reforms to collective bargaining in places such s Wisconsin and Indiana.
Organized labor isn’t taking the assault on its sacred cows lying down.
Through heavy expenditures and a massive ground movement, unions in Ohio and beyond shut down Buckeye State GOP Gov. John Kasich’s limits on public employee union rights through a statewide referendum.
And in Wisconsin, unions organized one of the biggest sustained protests late last winter, when Walker and Republican leadership were driving Act 10.
More than a year later, recalls loom large, and many argue that the fate of collective bargaining reforms and the labor movement at large hang in the balance.
"It does have implications beyond Wisconsin," state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale told Investor’s Business Daily on Wednesday. "We believe union rights are a fundamental American right and this is going to have a big impact in how the union movement is going to go."
Walker sees Wisconsin as the epicenter of the public policy earthquake, and the outcome will create political aftershocks nationwide.
“The big government union bosses understand that … there is something bigger at stake here,” Walker said at a Conservative Political Action Conference session last month. “Lord help us if we fail. I think that would set aside any courageous (reform) in any state for a decade — maybe a generation.”
Furlong said the fallout will help shape the presidential campaign.
“If Walker wins … I think we will see galvanization of the Republican Party around the issue, and we’ll see the Republican presidential candidate latch on to that,” the professor said. “If Walker loses, I think we will see the Democrats a little more celebratory. … We may see quite literally dancing in the streets, from people who are pushing pro-union stands.
“That’s the type of thing that can galvanize political activity.”