STUMP » Articles » Public Employee Unions: SCOTUS and Reality - Political Power Will Remain, No Matter What » 28 February 2018, 06:24

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Public Employee Unions: SCOTUS and Reality - Political Power Will Remain, No Matter What  


28 February 2018, 06:24

It does not require a public employee union for public employees to have an outsize effect on politics and elections.

Think about it for a moment, while I list some of the commentary on the recent SCOTUS case where it’s being argued that public employees should have a choice whether to pay dues/fees to a union when they bargain on their behalf.


The nutshell version: a guy who isn’t even really a public employee is annoyed he is required to pay fees to a union to “negotiate” on “his behalf”.

Some items, some straight news, some commentary, and I’m trying to get a good representation of both right and left views.

Finally, there’s SCOTUSblog, which has a great way to keep up-to-date on SCOTUS cases.

Here’s their page for Janus v. AFSCME.

Here are some observations from someone in court, watching people come and go.

As the justices take the bench and the Janus argument gets going, eyes are naturally fixed on Justice Neil Gorsuch, because he is widely perceived as the one who will break the deadlock of the Friedrichs tie. Amy Howe has the main account of the argument for this blog.

The main news, of course, is that Gorsuch asks no questions, and so his views remain unknown.


I’m not even going to try to address the legal issues here – that is way outside my expertise.

But I do want to address the potential impact of a ruling that public employees who are non-union members do not have to pay fees to the unions. I think it’s overblown on both sides – meaning those who want such a result, and those who do not.


Let’s consider the first piece in the list above, where John Kass points to public pensions as part of the war of public employees & politicians against the taxpayers:

She’s exaggerating. Advocacy won’t crumble. But what will be threatened is the symbiotic relationship between Democratic bosses who promise ever-increasing retirement and other benefits to public unions in exchange for union support at the polls.

Who pays?

Taxpayers, that’s who. And the ones with lousy retirement benefits can’t afford it anymore.

To illustrate, consider research done by Ted Dabrowski of, a conservative but independent economics think tank.

“The public sector unions love to say that pensions are underfunded — that taxpayers never put in enough. It’s their way of guilting Illinoisans into paying ever-higher taxes,” Dabrowski told me.

“But the reality is pension benefits have been grossly over-promised. Since 1987, total pension benefits owed to state workers and retirees have grown 1,061 percent. That’s eight times more than household incomes (127 percent ) and nearly 10 times more than inflation (111 percent) over the same period.”

Of course, all this has a cost, for taxpayers, for states like Illinois drowning in red ink, and for the public worker union members themselves, who worry that once the political Ponzi scheme collapses, they’ll be hurt the most.

And they will.

So here’s the question: why does it take an official union to lobby politicians for higher and higher benefits?

It doesn’t.

Public employees can see their own interest without needing an official union structure. And politicians know this.


Public employees can vote for their ultimate bosses.

It does not require any actual union for a bunch of teachers, firefighters, policemen, etc. to overwhelmingly decide that the politician promising them loads of bennies is the one to vote for.

If a private employee wants more benefits from an employer, and is a member of a union recognized for that employer, they can strike with fellow union-members (after particular votes, etc.) If they’re not part of a union, they can ask their boss for a raise, etc. Or they can quit for an employer with better benefits.

Now, public employee unions have been in strikes in the past (the Chicago teachers strikes come to mind), but many can’t legally strike (such as cops and firefighters). But it’s not the strikes that are their ultimate power: it’s their electoral power.

Think of the power of the NRA — it’s not the amount of campaign donations they make, per se, but that there are some NRA members (howdy!) who vote in every election and look to NRA recommendations/endorsements (kind of pointless in my area – not a lot of fellow NRA members in my neck of New York).

Similarly, public employees will get out to vote in primaries and off-cycle elections. Heck, some even get paid time for voting (those 1000+ Kentucky employees who decided to sleep in instead of voting probably regret it now.) Many also work in the places where the polling is. My polling site is a fire station – I assume all the firefighters vote (of course, we have a volunteer fire department, but they do get benefits if not pay.)

None of these ideas are unique to me, obviously. Here’s a piece from 2010:


When it comes to advancing their interests, public-sector unions have significant advantages over traditional unions. For one thing, using the political process, they can exert far greater influence over their members’ employers — that is, government — than private-sector unions can. Through their extensive political activity, these government-workers’ unions help elect the very politicians who will act as “management” in their contract negotiations — in effect handpicking those who will sit across the bargaining table from them, in a way that workers in a private corporation (like, say, American Airlines or the Washington Post Company) cannot. Such power led Victor Gotbaum, the leader of District Council 37 of the AFSCME in New York City, to brag in 1975: “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”

The political influence of public-sector unions is probably greatest, however, in low-turnout elections to school boards and state and local offices, and in votes to decide ballot initiatives and referenda. For example, two of the top five biggest spenders in Wisconsin’s 2003 and 2004 state elections were the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the AFSCME-affiliated Wisconsin PEOPLE Conference. Only the state Republican Party and two other political action committees — those belonging to the National Association of Realtors and SBC / Ameritech — spent more. The same is true in state after state, as unions work to exert control over the very governments that employs their members.

This political dimension of public-sector unionism also changes the substantive priorities and demands of the unions themselves. Although private-sector unions in the United States have engaged in leftist “social activism,” they have mostly concentrated their efforts on securing the best wages, benefits, pensions, and working conditions for their members: “pure and simple unionism,” as longtime American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers used to call it. Rarely do they demand more hiring, since — given the constant private-sector imperative to keep operating costs minimal — increasing the number of a company’s employees can limit wage and benefit increases for the workers already on the company’s payroll.

By contrast, as economist Richard Freeman has written, “public sector unions can be viewed as using their political power to raise demand for public services, as well as using their bargaining power to fight for higher wages.” The millions spent by public-employee unions on ballot measures in states like California and Oregon, for instance, almost always support the options that would lead to higher taxes and more government spending. The California Teachers Association, for example, spent $57 million in 2005 to defeat referenda that would have reduced union power and checked government growth. And the political influence of such massive spending is of course only amplified by the get-out-the-vote efforts of the unions and their members. This power of government-workers’ unions to increase (and then sustain) levels of employment through the political process helps explain why, for instance, the city of Buffalo, New York, had the same number of public workers in 2006 as it did in 1950 — despite having lost half of its population (and thus a significant amount of the demand for public services).

While he’s looking at the unions specifically, again, it doesn’t take unions or a lot of money to get public employees out to vote and to look out for their own interests.


I fully understand that many think the real power of the unions is to provide loads of campaign donations to their favored politicians.

And they do spend a lot of money.

Open Secrets is the go-to site to find campaign donation amounts, as well as lobbying and other info.

Let’s check with how the “labor industry” is doing:

That’s not really a lot of money, but the election season for 2017-2018 is not yet over. Let’s check the numbers for 2015-2016:

Again, just a drop in the bucket in national elections, to be sure. But you can see the domination of public sector unions:

And then here’s the longer-term split out:

And, of course, a very unsurprising party split:

So, what exactly have the public sector people gotten for all this money? Because, unless you want to argue that all that money simply reduced the huge number of seats lost by Democrats at all levels since 2008, I can’t imagine it’s really been a lot of help.

The usefulness of money to get “their guys” over the line is, to put it bluntly, questionable.

Heck, even the Super PACs can’t get it done:

Yes, I’m sure those wanting another President Bush or another President Clinton think their money was effectively deployed.

I know these are all national-level, and not local-level numbers. Maybe if these unions target Illinois elections, they’re more effective. But they didn’t manage to keep Rahm Emanuel from being mayor of Chicago, did they? [ooops, I got NY on the brain – corrected an error here]

So I’m skeptical about how these public employee unions by themselves ratcheted up benefits. I believe most of this ratcheting would have occurred without public employee unions in the states where such ratcheting occurred. So many of the benefit and pay boosts came not through contract bargaining, but state legislatures voting up benefits.

And then there’s stuff like spiking, coming from not union activity, but from local officials either self-dealing or treating favored individuals with extra overtime and other salary boosters. A lot of the benefit creep comes from small, localized decisions.

That said, it would be interesting to compare where public employees don’t have collective bargaining power against their benefit levels… but also to compare against the private sector benefits in those states as well.

These numbers are from 2014, but I think I’ll come back to this to look at how the public sector unionization tracks with salaries/benefits. That is for later.


I think the biggest impact from an adverse ruling in the SCOTUS case would be on specific individuals — to wit, the union leaders who get a better-funded pension via their union and get paid nicely for “union organizing”.

If they have to convince people to stay members of the union, they may actually earn their money for “organizing”. When public employees were forced to pay fees, whether they want to be a union member or not, it makes one’s “organizing” job a hell of a lot easier, I would think.

Then there’s the various hangers-on of political campaigns. If public union campaign cash is drained away, there are a lot fewer ineffective campaign consultants who can be hired.


I don’t think that an adverse ruling by SCOTUS would actually kill public employee unions, and it definitely won’t kill the political power of public employees.

The hysteria more represents the very vested interests of specific individuals who profit from forced-fees-paying to have a job. They would definitely be affected – either they lose money, or they have to work a lot harder to keep the same money. Man, it’s tough being in a competitive biz.


Let’s see what Mark Glennon at Wirepoints says:

Oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court this morning offered no additional clues about how the Janus case will be decided.

At issue are mandatory dues paid by public sector employees to unions. If the case goes as expected, public employees would be free to opt entirely out of paying dues, essentially rendering all states right-to-work for public sector employees.

The long-term implications for Illinois are hard to overstate.

Much of what broke Illinois stems from public unions having too much power over lawmakers. How did we get unaffordable pensions, rigged collective bargaining, burdensome work rules, broken prevailing wage mandates and costly unfunded mandates imposed by Springfield on our towns and cities?

Public union cash and the resulting clout accounts for most of it, and mandatory dues are the source.

Just don’t expect immediate impact in Illinois if the case goes in favor of the worker who brought the suit, Illinoisan Mark Janus. It will take years for any impact to materialize in election results and reforms.

Keep in mind that this is not the potential death knell for unions that many have hysterically claimed. Right-to-work states still have plenty of union membership. That’s as it should be. Personally, I believe in the principle of collective bargaining wherever workers decide they need it to counteract an imbalance of bargaining position. That principle can be honored without forced dues.

But in Illinois and some other states, public union power has simply gone too far. Here, less than three percent of our population is a member of a public union. How could so small a portion of the population exert so much influence and inflict so much financial damage? The balance of power is wrong.

I think Glennon is a bit optimistic here.

It’s an easy answer to blame the unions in Illinois. The power is that these public employees see their job as an asset they own. They won’t get fired. They can vote for their bosses, whether or not they have a union representing them. They assume they’ll stay in their job longer than politicians can stay in theirs.

Sure, money is a tool to get politicians’ attention, but the most attention-grabbing item is a bloc of voters.

From one who has been forced to pay fees to a union I wasn’t a member of when I taught at UConn (and who really wasn’t interested in the items they negotiated for), I would love Janus to come down where state employees are not required to be union members and are not required to pay fees if they’re not union members. But I am under no illusion that this will kill the political power of government employees.

They still have interests, and they still have the power to vote. It would take something like not allowing government employees or political officals to vote to remove some of that power… but those people also have friends and family who would vote their interests, too.

I can think of less radical “fixes”, but I think they would be more destructive than helpful. It’s like trying to fix human nature.

Just know that once people see political positions or government jobs as something they own, they will exercise their powers to keep these, and do not require any official unions for this.

There are very specific individuals whose livelihoods are threatened, but they’re union leaders and various hangers-on, not the public employees themselves.

Without the union, the public employees are not going to forget their power.

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