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Public Unions Try to Hold the Line

eye on the news

Public Unions Try to Hold the Line

In the wake of the Janus court decision against them earlier this year, government labor groups are spending heavily on political campaigns. October 15, 2018
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

Though the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling earlier this year was supposed to empty out their coffers, many government unions have yet to feel the full impact of the decision, which bars them from collecting fees from nonmembers. After decades of levying these charges, some unions remain flush with cash heading into this season’s elections, and they’re pouring millions of dollars into campaigns around the country—especially in Republican-controlled states—to raise taxes, expand government programs, increase mandates on businesses, and support political allies. Their efforts are a reminder that, for the time being at least, government unions remain a formidable force in American politics, waging battles for bigger, more expensive government.

One common union strategy is to go directly to voters in locations where unions haven’t been able to advance their agenda through legislatures. In Maine, over the opposition of Governor Paul LaPage and the Republican-majority legislature, union-sponsored groups are pushing a ballot initiative to boost taxes by some $300 million annually. The plan would institute a payroll tax on employers and employees for income above the current federal Social Security tax cap—currently $128,400 a year. Most of the nearly $1 million raised for the campaign effort comes from George Soros’s left-leaning Open Society Policy Center and from the Maine People’s Alliance, a group backed by the Service Employees International Union, which represents public-sector employees and hospital workers.

In Hawaii, the National Education Association and the Hawaii State Teachers Association are key drivers of a constitutional ballot initiative authorizing the legislature to tax investment properties, with the money earmarked for public education. So far, all the $600,000 money raised by the committee advancing the initiative comes from the two education unions. “Trump Towers [Honolulu] was able to quickly sell out more than 400 units, with some condos selling for more than $10 million,” Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said in support of the initiative. “If these rich out-of-state investors can afford multi-million dollar properties, they can afford to pay taxes to help educate Hawaii’s children.”

The union-funded Fairness Project is bankrolling Medicaid-expansion campaigns in several states, including Nebraska and Utah. Created by SEIU and funded with $12 million in union dollars since 2016, the Washington, D.C.-based group is spending $2.5 million on the Medicaid campaign in Utah, which seeks to expand the program to 150,000 state residents not currently eligible for it. In Nebraska, the group has donated $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions for an initiative to extend Medicaid to those making 138 percent of the federal poverty limit.

The Fairness Project has joined forces with another labor-backed organization, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, to hike minimum wages in two Republican states. Founded by former Clinton administration staffer Eric Kessler, the Sixteen Thirty Fund has received $5.5 million from labor unions since 2016, including NEA, AFSCME, and SEIU. So far, the groups have invested $1.1 million in an effort to raise the minimum wage in Missouri to $12 an hour, and half a million dollars for an Arkansas initiative that would boost the minimum to $11 an hour.

Unions are also spending liberally on midterm elections that will determine the makeup of Congress. So far, government labor groups have contributed about $30 million this cycle to federal elections, according to Opensecrets.org. The American Federation of Teachers leads with $8.6 million, while AFSCME has spent $6.7 million and the National Education Association has provided $6 million. This money almost exclusively supports Democratic candidates and causes. So far, for instance, 99 percent of AFSCME’s contributions to federal candidates has gone to Democrats.

This highly partisan spending reflects the priorities of left-leaning union leaders and the Democratic Party, but not necessarily of government workers. Few government employees rely on Medicaid for health insurance, for instance, and few public workers benefit from hikes in the minimum wage. Even efforts to raise taxes anger some government workers, who have to pay the levies, too. This tension underlines why public-sector unions now face a potential exodus of members. “The union voice is not my voice. The union’s fight is not my fight,” the plaintiff in the Janus case, Illinois state worker Mark Janus, wrote in a 2016 opinion piece. “And I shouldn’t be forced to pay money to a union if I don’t think it does a good job representing my interests.”

In Janus v. AFSCME, the court sided with the Illinois worker and ruled unconstitutional state laws that mandate that government workers who refuse to join a union must still pay an “agency fee” to unions for the work that they do representing employees. In states such as Wisconsin, which had previously banned these fees, public-sector union revenues dropped significantly, crimping their ability to finance political activities. Now unions in every state face the same restrictions, potentially leading to the loss of millions of members and fee-payers nationwide.

Those defections are just beginning, and labor leaders know that many more workers are ready to opt out of making payments. Still, union honchos hope that the money they spend this election cycle can make an impact that will be felt for years to come.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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