TCS Daily

When Unions Vote Your Money

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth - October 29, 2010 9:16 AM

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President Obama has attacked business groups for campaign spending, but as the 2010 election campaign comes to a close, the biggest contributor is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has bragged about pouring $87 million into this congressional election.

At the University of Washington in Seattle on October 21 Mr. Obama declared, "Look, right now the same special interests who would profit from the other side's agenda, they are fighting back hard....So to win this election, they are plowing tens of millions of dollars into front groups that are running misleading negative ads all across America."

But AFSCME's $87 million is greater than the contribution of any of the groups mentioned by the president, which include the Chamber of Commerce ($75 million) and American Crossroads ($65 million). Other unions, such as the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association are also ratcheting up their spending.

AFSCME president Gerald McEntee is proud of his union's track record. "We're spending big. And we're damn happy it's big. And our members are damn happy it's big-it's their money," he said in an article in The Wall Street Journal.

There's nothing wrong with private individuals or organizations, including private unions, spending money on political campaigns as long as institutional sources are disclosed and individual contributors to the organizations are agreeable. Under the Supreme Court's Beck decision, union members have a right to ask for a refund of the portion of their dues used for political purposes.

But AFSCME members are government employees. Their salaries are paid by the taxpayers. Part of their salaries goes to union dues. It is appropriate for these dues to be used to seek better workplace conditions, to facilitate employer-employee dispute resolution, to offer a form of "insurance" for employees in difficult personal situations who need financial help.

In contrast, it is inappropriate for public-employee unions to spend dues money on political contributions, even though they do it lawfully. When government employees favor one candidate for public office over another, and the disfavored candidate wins, this creates a poisoned atmosphere.

And when government workers take a public position on their boss, they become vested in the outcome of the election. This may create an awkward situation in the workplace. For this reason, public employee unions should be barred from supporting candidates for public office.

That's the reasoning behind the prohibition on federal and some state government employees from some forms of political activity, such as soliciting other workers for contributions, under the Hatch Act. An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities was passed by Congress in 1939 and named for Senator Carl Hatch, Democrat of New Mexico. Although the Hatch Act applies primarily to federal employees, in my opinion it should be a model for public employees also.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the problem of dueling incentives back in 1937. In a letter to Luther Steward, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, he wrote that "meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government."

Although Roosevelt was referring to collective bargaining, he was highlighting the unique status of government employees. Public officials are chosen, either directly or indirectly, through popular elections, and the government employee should be indifferent as to the outcome of the election. Naturally, public sector employees are also voters and taxpayers, and so are entitled to contribute of their own volition and on their own time to campaigns.

In the 2010 election cycle, AFSCME donated 99.5% of contributions to Democrats; the National Education Association donated 96%; and the American Federation of Teachers donated 99.7%, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

This implies that public sector employees will be less willing to go to work when Republicans are in charge, and that Republicans are less welcome as government workers. This is a troubling state of affairs.

Those winners elected in spite of union money know that most of the people working for them funded their opponents. The public has given elected officials certain responsibilities, including managing government workers. How are officials supposed to manage those workers if the officials know that employees are organized to oppose them? This is different from individuals giving money on their own.

These dues are being funneled to Democratic politicians who promise to raise workers' salaries higher and hire more public sector workers - even though Labor Department data show that compensation for federal and state workers is higher than for private-sector workers. Government workers have access to elected officials during negotiations to set wages and benefits, and can hold the promise of campaign contributions over these politicians during negotiations.

That means higher compensation for government workers, higher taxes, and higher budget deficits. The taxes go from the electorate, to the government paychecks, to union dues - then to more campaign contributions.

Moreover, AFSCME contributions do not just come from state and local taxpayers. A significant portion of the stimulus package, paid from federal funds, went to save jobs of state and local workers.

Government unions should be impartial as to the political leadership of the government. As with all other Americans, government employees contribute to campaigns as private individuals, but they should not fund elections through a public sector unions. AFSCME's $87 million campaign contributions ill serve the taxpayer, the country, and the process of government.

This article first appeared on RealClearMarkets.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a contributing editor of RealClearMarkets, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a columnist for the Examiner.


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