Big Government’s Government Union Firewall

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BY HERITAGE.ORG – Indications are that the Progressive Movement is headed for a crushing defeat two weeks from now. Political analysts Stu Rothenberg and Charlie Cook both peg the number of competitive House races at around 100.

Separately, both analysts are also predicting Democrats will lose between 45 and 60 seats (39 are needed to switch control of the House). Striking back against the electorate’s small government fervor, AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman penned a strategy memo last week claiming “Union Voters are the firewall for candidates that support working families.”


And sure enough Big Labor is pouring millions of dollars into this fall’s elections. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has spent $1.3 million on ads since September alone, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has spent another $5.2 million. Ackerman comforts Beltway liberals: “The AFL-CIO’s grassroots political program has an incredible reach, with union families talking to 17 million of their co-workers; comprised of union members, their families, retirees and members of Working America. Outside the political party committees themselves, we have the largest political mobilization operation in the country.”

What Ackerman doesn’t mention is that the majority of these “union members” don’t get their paychecks from private employers; they are paid by you, the taxpayers. The AFL-CIO may have once represented the interests of steelworkers, auto workers and teamsters, but now the largest union in the AFL-CIO is AFSCME. In fact, 2009 was a historic year for Big Labor: for the first time in American history the majority of union members now work for the government, not the private sector.

It was not supposed to be this way. Big Labor’s biggest champion, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote in 1937: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.” Collective bargaining, the anti-trust exemption at the heart the labor movement’s power, was created to help workers seize their “fair share” of business profits.

If a union ends up extracting a contract from a private firm that eats up too much profits, that firm will lose out to competitors. But while private firms face competition, governments don’t. So when a union extracts a generous contract from government, there is no check on that spending. Instead of being disciplined by more efficient competitors, the government just pays for higher spending with higher taxes.

And generous contracts paid for by your tax dollars have become the main source of union growth. While private-sector unions lost 834,000 members in 2009, public-sector unions actually gained 64,000 members. Not only has the federal government been adding new union members, but the government is also paying them more than their services are worth in the private sector.

Depending on the methodology employed, the average federal employee receives as much as 40% more in total compensation than an equally skilled private sector worker would receive. Including both wages and benefits, overpaying federal workers costs taxpayers approximately $40–50 billion per year. Government unions then take your tax dollars, turn right around, and use them to lobby for even bigger government. From Maine, to Florida, to Illinois, to California, your tax dollars are being used to lobby for higher taxes and higher spending.

The American people are beginning to catch on to the government union game. A new poll released today by The Washington Post finds that 52% of Americans believe that federal workers are overpaid for the work that they do. And three-quarters of those surveyed say they think federal workers are paid more and get better benefits than their counterparts in the private sector.

Not all federal employees are overpaid. Some highly skilled federal workers took pay cuts to serve their country, no doubt. But that is all the more reason Congress should reform how federal employees should be compensated. Congress should expand outsourcing to the private sector and replace the General Schedule with a performance-based pay system tied to market compensation. That would be one giant step toward ending the government union big government machine.


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