Follow the (Union) Money

I’ve received comments (and a little hate mail) about my unrelenting criticism of the political power of the public employees unions. The recognition is justified; the hate mail is not.

The problem is that the public employees unions, like most political activities, fly below the average Joe’s radar. Most people’s attention to politics on a daily basis is superficial at best and punctuated with a sharp focus only at election time where they are inundated with carefully contrived campaign messages to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures. That’s understandable. Most people are too busy maintaining their jobs, building a business, and raising a family to pay much attention to politics.

But I digress. Attention to politics and those who influence politics is important. The amount of taxes you pay, the limitations on the use of your property, the social services you receive and the quality of the education that you and your children receive are all determined by politics. And while some politics is driven by an adherence to fundamental principles, most is driven by money.

When it comes to money, nobody spends more than the public employees unions. Just in terms of reportable political expenditures, the major public employees unions, such as SEIU, AFSCME and OEA, occupy the top spots for political campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. But the reported expenditures are dwarfed by the amount of money that the public employees unions focus on the whole of the political process. The Oregon Department of Administration reported that for the calendar year of 2004, state government transferred over $14,500,000 to various public employee unions. The vast majority of the money went to AFSCME and SEIU. That means that during each election cycle (two years) the State of Oregon withholds and forwards $29,000,000 to the public employees unions.

The report from the Department of Administration duly notes that amounts withheld and forwarded includes “dues, Political Action Committee contributions for ballot measures and candidate support, and association dues.” And that would be a critical statement if you were talking about private sector unions who spend a considerable amount of their moneys on recruiting, organizing and bargaining. But these are the public employees unions. If you work for state or local government you have to belong to the public employees unions – so much for recruiting or organizing. If you are an elected official or political appointee bargaining with the public employees unions, you are more than likely facing the group that put you in office – so much for the bargaining process.

Of course, that $29,000,000 does not include the amounts withheld and forwarded to OEA, SEIU, and the other public employees unions by the school districts, the counties, the cities and the myriad of other local governmental agencies. These amounts are virtually impossible to collect but it is a safe assumption, based on the sheer number of employees, to assume that their combined effect approximates that of the state employees – another $29,000,000 per election cycle.

So if you’re not spending the $58,000,000 for recruiting, organizing and collective bargaining, what are you spending it on? Well, politics. Remember not all political expenditures are reportable expenditures. Moneys expended for political research, polling, political education, internal communications, candidate recruitment, issue identification and issue advocacy are not reportable expenditures. When politicians supported by the public employees unions need a white paper, a research poll, or a vehicle to communicate with its members, the unions provide it without having to report.

Nobody, outside the union officials, knows precisely how much of the $58,000,000 each election cycle is spent on non-reportable political activities but, since politics defines the public employees unions’ success, it is safe to assume a large part of it. One of the most telling elements is that this singular focus of the public employees unions on politics is the single cause for the recent schism in the organized labor movement. The private sector unions wanted to focus the majority of their efforts and expenditures on organizing and collective bargaining to rebuild their numbers. The public employees unions want to focus on politics and influence of government.

Politics is what defines the wage levels, benefits received, and work place rules for the public employees. It has brought us one of the most extravagant public employees retirement systems (PERS) in the nation. It has brought a health care program that exceeds in cost and benefits anything in the private sector. And it has brought wage levels that now exceed private sector employment. The best wage level job in Oregon today is a public employee job. (Unfortunately we still have to try to find enough private sector jobs to pay for those excesses.)

In the immortal words of Deep Throat, “Follow the money.” In this case it flows from the public employees unions to the politicians and from the politicians, via government payrolls, back to the unions.

Know your opposition.