Danger Comes With Rise of Public Employee Unions Political Power

The public employee unions won a significant victory in Oregon’s recent primary election. The only surprising thing about the victory is that The Oregonian, having awakened from a long period of political naivete regarding Democrat politics, has become sufficiently alarmed by the political dominance of the public employee unions so as to feature the story with a Page One, above the fold, headline on this past Sunday’s edition.

But even at that, The Oregonian has underwhelmed both the reason and the impact of such political dominance.

In my August 26, 2007, column in the Medford MailTribune, I noted:

“. . . And nobody is more focused on getting their candidates to fill those offices than the public employees unions.

“Please note that I said public employees unions and not their political action committees. After all, the public employees unions do just about nothing other than politics. And there is a good reason for that. Politics is what guarantees them higher salaries, bigger benefits, ease in organizing and assurance that money for the unions will continue to be collected by the government and remitted monthly to their coffers. That amount collected by state, county and municipal governments is the tidy sum of about $58 million every election cycle. That amount of money goes a long ways to making sure that Democrats control every statewide office and both houses of the legislature. And control is what matters.

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“And with that kind of money, the public employee unions control who gets the nod for the Democrat nominations and, thereafter, who gets those vast sums of money, coupled with the legions of paid volunteers, to make sure that they are elected. Here is where you begin to understand the nuances of power politics within the Democrat Party. There isn’t a public declaration by the public employee unions as to who should get the nomination. It is a lot more subtle than that. But in the end, nobody brings as much as the public employee unions to the table and they generally get their way.

“And the corollary of that is also true. If there is an incumbent that has not toed the line, money and support is withheld until that incumbent remembers who is really running the show.”

Therein lies the reason for the political dominance. The public employee unions utilize the payroll checkoff system to collect nearly $60 million dollars every election cycle. It is an effortless system since the state and local governments bear the burden of calculating, collecting and remitting that amount each month to the public employees unions.

Men and women are required to join the public employees union as a condition of employment. They are required to make mandatory payments to the public employee unions. And the public employees are charged regardless of whether or not they agree with the political activities of the public employee unions. There is no other entity — political or otherwise — that enjoys that same cost free program of imposed contributions. There is no other political entity in Oregon that comes even close to matching the massive $60 million war chest each election cycle. Add to that an army of “volunteers” — each union demands participation in the election process by its members — and you have an overwhelming political machine that cannot be matched and is growing to the point where it cannot be stopped or neutralized.

The impact of such political dominance is, to put it bluntly, corruption in government. Unfortunately, the concept of political corruption assumes that public funds are being used to make someone or some business rich. But political corruption can also be about using public funds to acquire and maintain political power. That is the corruption upon which the public employee unions have seized.

In traditional labor-management relationships, there is organized labor on one side and management on the other. The unions are ostensibly beholden to their members — the employees. Management is beholden to the owners (shareholders). There is a tension that exists which is likely to result in an appropriate balance — sufficiently robust wages to attract quality workers vs. low enough wages to insure that business remains competitive in an open marketplace.

But that tension does not exist in the case of the public employee unions simply because the management structure (elected and appointed officials) are beholden to those who place them in office rather than the shareholders (taxpayers). In Oregon, the Democrat party is largely financed by the public employee unions. In Oregon, the public employees unions have a substantial influence on who is selected to run in the Democrat party.

It is this second issue that is the most important and which is routinely ignored by the mainstream press even though they have an undue fascination with “public corruption” — real or perceived — in every other facet of government. Evidence of this naivete in the mainstream press is The Oregonian’s willingness to print uncritically Gov. Kulongoski recent comments:

“We would always hope that our political system rewards elected officials for making the tough decisions. We, unfortunately, many times do just the opposite. We allow interest groups to punish elected officials for making tough decisions.”

This is the same Gov. Kulongoski who, having experienced the wrath of the public employee unions during his own primary, completely knuckled under by appointing three former public employee union officials to his three top administration spots — chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and communications director.

He negotiated a generous wage increase for the public employee unions and thereafter secured the funding for it through the Democrat controlled legislature. He declared reform of the burdensome and overly generous PERS system off limits. Kulongoski has routinely authorized “sole source” contracts with the public employee unions which prohibits the state from outsourcing any function that was previously performed by a public employee union member thus ensuring continuing inefficiency. Kulongoski signed into law a provision that deprives public employees the right to a secret ballot as to whether to unionize and thus makes them vulnerable to intimidation by the public employee union thugs.

In his last gubernatorial campaign Kulongoski, during a speech to the AFL-CIO, which is dominated by the public employee unions said:

“. . . I’ve never lost sight of who I represent, and that’s you.”

The poster boy for the public employee unions’ corruption of Oregon’s political system is Gov. Kulongoski. For the mainstream media to publish his comments about the “hopes” for our political system without asking the hard questions is the moral equivalent of allowing Bill Clinton to discuss the sanctity of marriage.

By using these vast sums paid by taxpayers and remitted by the government to ensure that people dependent on their political largesse are elected, the public employee unions ensure that those with whom they negotiate are beholden to them and grant them robust salary increases, handsome pensions, ease in imposing mandatory membership on new employees and unlimited political power.

It is no wonder that, in Oregon, public employees enjoy higher wages, better benefits, and more job security than equivalent positions in private enterprise. It is also no wonder that one of the largest growth sectors in Oregon employment is government. One only wonders as public employment grows, who will be left to pay for it.