inside sources print logo
Get up to date Delaware Valley news in your inbox

MOONEY: Government Unions Prioritize Politics Over Representation

According to an analysis of campaign finance records, government unions place a significant premium on political activism than on representing their members.

This is particularly true in the case of the National Education Association, AFSCME and their local affiliates.

Public employees who fund this political activism with their dues might want to ask some hard questions about how their public policy views square with the agenda of their union leaders. If, for example, they support a wide range of public and private educational options for parents and students, chances are their union leaders are using their union dues to block reform measures they favor.

National School Choice Week provides teachers a platform to assess if their unions have effectively advanced their professional interests and bettered workplace conditions. Parents with K-12 students and who belong to government unions also have a vested interest in learning how often their education goals align with their union’s political spending.

Some key figures from Department of Labor data highlight the political activities funded by membership dues. The latest numbers show NEA spent $50.1 million on politics versus $39.3 million on representational activities.

Meanwhile, AFSCME spent $60 million on politics compared to $34.3 million on representation. The American Federation of Teachers, another key player in union political activism, paid $93 million on representational activities versus about $47 million on political activism.

What about the local affiliates in Pennsylvania? On the surface, the ratios appear more balanced. However, a sizable percentage of union dues fund political activism that parents and teachers do not necessarily support. The Pennsylvania State Education Association spent $14.8 million on representation versus $5 million on political activities. In comparison, AFSCME Local 13 spent $6.3 million on representation versus $408,406 on political activism.

The only outlier on the list is AFT Pennsylvania, which spent $94,821 on representational activities and claims to have spent no money on political activism. Even assuming that’s true locally, AFT union members nationwide are footing the bill for political campaigns that crowd out their workplace concerns.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, found government unions directed less than 20 percent of all dues expenditures toward representational activities.

So, what about the rest?

After examining the spending of the four largest government unions (namely, NEA, AFT, AFSCME and SEIU), the foundation found government unions collectively spent more than $406 million of their membership dues on political activities. According to the foundation’s report, membership dues funded about 60 percent of union political spending in the 2021-22 election cycle.

But some public employees have had enough and are combating unions’ misplaced priorities in court.

In one high-profile case in Connecticut, John Grande, a public school physical education instructor, won an unfair labor practice charge against the Hartford Federation of Teachers. The union had declined to arbitrate Grande’s grievance because he was not a union member.

With assistance from the Fairness Center, a public interest law firm in Pennsylvania, Grande ultimately prevailed. The Connecticut labor board concluded that the union illegally discriminated against Grande because he was not a union member. Their decision bolsters the right to fair representation for all Connecticut public employees. Yet, it does not solve the problem of the teachers unions prioritizing politics over their primary responsibility of representation.

Grande balked when the Hartford Public Schools held a mandatory professional development training described as “Identity & Privilege” on Zoom, which he views as an effort by administrators to coerce critical race theory onto the school district.

But shouldn’t the local teachers union also be working to secure Grande’s free speech rights? Isn’t that part of their job?

That’s why the Fairness Center is pursuing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Grande that alleges the school district violated his First Amendment rights. The firm has represented other teachers and public employees in Pennsylvania who object to their union officials’ political agenda.

The growing disparity between the interests and policy preferences of rank-and-file public employees and their union leaders is at least partly responsible for the recent success of the school choice movement. Despite all the money and organization government unions have poured into obstructing reforms that create new public and private school options, school choice advocates continue to gain ground.

For instance, 13 states offer Education Savings Accounts, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that favors a wide range of education reforms. ESAs enable parents to receive a portion of their tax dollars back through restricted-use savings accounts that cover private school tuition, tutoring services, instructional materials and other education services.

Perhaps the great takeaway from School Choice Week is that unions are beginning to experience diminishing returns on their investments against educational freedom.

Counterpoint: 2023 Won’t Mark a Union Revival, and That’s Good News

For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: The ‘Year of the Strike’ Could Be a Turning Point for the Labor Movement.”

There’s no denying that unions notched impressive victories this year, including substantial increases in compensation for auto workers, actors, screenwriters, airline pilots and delivery drivers. Regarding work days lost, union strikes in 2023 were the largest in 40 years — big enough to affect the overall job market.

But it would be premature to declare a resurgence of the U.S. labor movement or to argue that most workers would have benefitted from one.

The historical trendline is unmistakable: In 2022, one in 10 U.S. workers belonged to a union, down from one in seven in 1996 and one in five in 1983, when the first comparable data were collected. The decline of union membership has been remarkably steady over the last four decades. Since 2000, the year-to-year change in the unionization rate has been positive only six times, and those small gains have quickly been reversed.

Moreover, the latest data show that unionization is increasingly concentrated in the government sector, especially local services like K-12 education and public safety. Only 6 percent of private-sector workers are union members.

Another sign that unions are a waning force in the labor market is that the union wage premium (i.e., how much more union members are paid than similar workers who aren’t represented by a union) has fallen sharply. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the union wage premium in the private sector has been slashed in half from about 25 percent to 12.5 percent — evidence that unions don’t exert the kind of influence at the bargaining table that they used to.

The erosion of union power is rooted not in Big Business union-busting but in broader economic forces: globalization, technological change (including automation), shifts in industrial composition, and the rise of the gig economy. Those trends aren’t likely to reverse themselves any time soon.

Whether you celebrate or mourn the decline of organized labor, remember two things. First, workers have a right to organize and advocate for themselves. This leads me to the second point: Unions like to position themselves as promoting the interests of all workers, but their priority is mostly their own members. Sometimes, that comes at the expense of other workers.

For example, although higher wages for union workers are nothing to scoff at, they should be weighed against their not-so-obvious effects on the economy. By keeping pay above competitive market levels, unions reduce the number of workers unionized companies are willing to hire, making it harder for outsiders to find a job. States with policies that favor unions consistently experience slower employment growth and higher unemployment rates than other states, even after controlling for a host of other factors.

Moreover, unions generally advocate for seniority-based pay and benefits, which makes it harder to reward effective young workers. Unions often block employers from adopting the most efficient production methods, undermining companies’ profitability and, in some cases, driving them out of business.

Rigid work rules imposed by unions can degrade organizational culture. One study surveyed thousands of American workers and found that those in unionized companies reported “reduced empowerment, less effective teamwork and less support for career development and advancement within the company.”

These things trickle down to consumers. Researchers have documented, for example, that product recalls are significantly more common at unionized workplaces than non-unionized ones, possibly because higher wages crowd out investments in technology upgrades that would improve product quality.

Although unions tout fairness in the workplace, my colleague and I have found a connection between strong union protections and hiring discrimination. States that give unions more power to recruit members and raise funds have 30 percent higher rates of hiring discrimination against older women compared to other states. These findings suggest that high union pay encourages employers to reject job applicants they might view as less productive.

This doesn’t mean unions need to be demonized for organizing out of self-interest, but it does mean more states should reconsider tipping the scales in unions’ favor. It also means most workers shouldn’t worry about unions’ weakening grip on the labor market.

Longshoremen’s Union Uses Hardball Tactics to Target Offshore Wind

It looks like Bidenomics brought to life: Union labor and green tech companies signing a landmark agreement to work together building carbon-zero windpower for American consumers.

But in a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished,” one recalcitrant labor union is risking all this work.

When Vineyard Wind was planning its 62-turbine wind project 15 miles south of Martha’s Vinyard, it reached an agreement with the Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council. Vineyard Wind said the deal would save ratepayers $1.4 billion over 20 years while creating “roughly 500 family-sustaining union jobs.”

“The signing of this Project Labor Agreement sets the standard for Offshore Wind and other renewable energy projects across our country,” said Frank Callahan, the president of the council. “We can Build Back Better with renewable energy and create union jobs at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Denmark-based Orsted, the world’s largest offshore wind developer, had a more ambitious East Coast wind power plan. Its South Fork Wind project will build a dozen turbines that will generate 130 megawatts of electricity off the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Orsted hopes to power 70,000 Long Island homes once the project becomes operational.

Orsted’s National Offshore Wind Agreement (NOWA) with North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) was greeted with great fanfare.

Signed by more than a dozen international union presidents, NOWA caused NABTU President Sean McGarvey to hail it as revolutionary. “This partnership will not only expand tens of thousands of career opportunities for them to flourish in the energy transition but also lift up even more people into the middle class. The constant drumbeat of public support for unions being important to maintain and build the middle class helped secure this momentous achievement.”

But now, these projects face delays and rising costs due to demands for a piece of the project pie from the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). The ILA is a union notorious for its hardball — and sometimes illegal — tactics. A decade ago, the president of one of its East Coast locals, 1235 in New Jersey, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for extorting money from his own members using “actual and threatened force, violence and fear,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

And just last year, the president of ILA-1740 in Puerto Rico was busted as part of a RICO Act prosecution of an extortion scheme.

In this case, the ILA uses accusations of union busting and labor violations to slow these two major wind projects. For example, work briefly halted at the Vineyard Wind project earlier this year when ILA Local 1413 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, complained that the project’s agreement with the building trades council set a bad precedent. At issue is whether ILA or the tradesmen will operate forklifts and massive cranes unloading turbines.

And Orsted is facing pressure from international unions backing complaints from the ILA in New London, Connecticut. The union alleges Orsted refuses to respect longshore worker jurisdiction regarding wind turbine operations.

While Vineyard Wind officials declined to go on record, Orsted decried the union’s complaints as counterproductive.

“This is a jurisdictional dispute between two unions, and we remain hopeful that they can resolve the issue,” said Allison Ziogas, Orsted’s head of U.S. labor relations. “South Fork Wind is putting more than 50 local union members across seven unions to work at State Pier in New London, including the local International Longshoremen’s Association that has led the offloading and loadout of offshore wind components for months. … As always, our priorities are safety, maximizing roles for local union workers, and keeping South Fork Wind’s schedule on track.”

Orsted and Vineyard Wind say they’ve carefully followed federal law in the pre-hire agreement process. Now, they say, it’s time for the Biden administration to step in as a matter of law and support the zero-carbon power built with union labor that President Biden has promoted.

While union strikes or job walk-offs get plenty of press, they also cost millions. The Labor Department estimated striking workers accounted for 7.4 million lost man-hours this year. Most of those involve the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes.

With strikes come construction delays and increased costs. Orsted leadership reported a $2.3 billion loss through August in the United States due to supply-chain issues and interest rate increases. The company declined to say how much it lost in the ILA’s recent one-day walk-off.

Labor experts like Sean Higgins at the Competitive Enterprise Institute note that private-sector unions are shrinking, not growing. That is one reason they should pick their fights carefully. He said just 6 percent of private-sector jobs are unionized, and overall, union members hit an all-time low of 10.1 percent of the workforce in 2022.

“As the economy has grown, the union movement hasn’t grown along with it,” Higgins said. “As new industries have sprung up, unions have struggled to organize them.

“What the union movement has yet to try is to radically rethink how it operates and organizes,” he said. “Until it seriously tries to listen to those workers and find out what they want, it will continue to struggle.”

McGarvey came to the defense of Orsted. “Their investment in, and commitment to, the communities in which they have begun operations will provide local residents generational opportunities to participate in the emergence of an industry and technologies that will be a crucial part of our domestic energy future.

“It is deeply regretful that another labor organization, ill-prepared to meet the moment, has instead sought to undermine union employment opportunities for our members,” McGarvey said. “A safe and reasonable path forward has been presented to the ILA. We call upon this organization to immediately end their threats and obstruction and to work in good faith to bring this dispute to an end.”

Please follow DVJournal on social media: Twitter@DVJournal or