The Worth of Public Employee Unions

Right From the Start

What is the worth of a public employees union?

Well not much these days according to the actions of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU announced last week that its members must be prepared for a thirty percent (30%) budget reduction including an immediate ten- percent (10%) reduction in 2017. Of course the SEIU union bosses blamed it all on President-elect Donald Trump but there is really more to it than that.

Private sector union membership has been on the decline for decades. It is the result of a combination of things – mechanization, international trade agreements, and a migration of workers rights from union contracts to government regulations. To some degree, as unions became political forces, they began to push for legislation governing employee rights (work and safety conditions, overtime, compensation, benefits, discipline, etc.) As they did so, workers began to assume that it was “government” rather than the “unions” that protected them. All of these forces combined began to make unions less relevant to workers. The rise of state determined right to work laws added to the decline by eliminating the ability of unions to make membership and financial contributions mandatory as a condition of receiving or maintaining employment. In return the private sector unions doubled down on their political activities and became recognized more as an arm of the Democrat Party than as a vehicle for workers rights.

From 1973 to 2015 the percentage of private sector workers belonging to a union declined from 24.2 percent to 6.7 percent. That represents a decline in member numbers from slightly over 14 Million to about 6.7 Million even while the total private sector workforce was expanding by nearly double. And none of this occurred after the election of Mr. Trump.

But not so for the public employee unions. Their membership has continued to increase. The percentage of public employees belonging to unions has increased to nearly 36 percent and their numbers now have risen to nearly 20.2 Million. They too represent a part of the Democrat Party but that membership represents an entirely different dynamic. In the private sector the unions have virtually no impact on the selection of the management with whom they must deal. In contrast the public employee unions, by financing Democrat candidates have a substantial impact on determining the management with whom they will deal. Add to that the fact that, once elected, the new “management” team is not spending their own money or even their shareholders money (they are spending taxpayer money) and are encouraged to spend freely by the public employee unions to increase wages, benefits and additional union paying jobs. Today public employee union members are paid significantly more than their counterparts with similar jobs in the private sector. Their healthcare benefits are superior and their retirement plans are gold-platted.

You would think that this would command member loyalty, but it does not. Witness Michigan where passage of a public employee’s right to work law resulted in the two largest teachers unions losing about 20 percent of its membership in just its first year of operation. Oklahoma and Idaho likewise experienced declines in union membership as a result of their right to work laws.

The public employee unions have become the major funding mechanism for the Democrat Party. The focus of the unions’ leadership is on retention of their position within the power structure of the Democrat Party. And while the Democrat Party richly rewards the public employee unions with taxpayer funds, the political agenda of the Democrat Party – advancement of the welfare state – has little to do with the working men and women. The Democrats’ agenda is the public employee unions’ agenda. Virtually all of its political expenditures benefit Democrat candidates and Democrat causes – that despite the fact that there are a substantial number of independents and Republicans forced to pay their dues in support of activities which they actually oppose.
So why are the public employee unions nearly apoplectic about Mr. Trump’s election? It’s very simple. It starts with a United States Supreme Court case entitled Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association which challenged compulsory membership and/or funding of public employee unions as a violation of the First Amendments Free Speech clause. Virtually all constitutional law observers agreed that the Supreme Court was likely to void the mandatory participation requirement in favor of Free Speech. However, the death of Justice Anton Scalia left the court with a four/four tie and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision favoring mandatory participation remained in effect.

The election of Mr. Trump, coupled with the denial of consideration of President Obama’s lame duck nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, will result in Mr. Trump selecting the next Supreme Court Justice. Mr. Trump has pledged to select someone “in the mold of Justice Scalia.” There are several cases similar to Friedrichs wending their way towards the Supreme Court, in which case it is safe to assume that the Supreme Court will come down decisively on the side of Free Speech and negate the mandatory participation requirements of public employee unions. And the slow descent to irrelevance for public employee unions will thus begin.

It’s not the policies of Mr. Trump that is giving SEIU heartaches. It is the United States Constitution. It is the Bill of Rights of that Constitution. It is the fundamentals of the First Amendment of that Constitution that prohibits the government from forcing individuals to support or oppose someone else’s political activities. It is the first amendment because it is the first and foremost cornerstone of democracy. Free Speech must remain free – even if it costs the Democrat Party its major funding source.

And when the Right to Free Speech is secured for public employees – secured despite the wishes of their union bosses – the financial largesse of the public employees union and thus the Democrats will suffer.