by Donald Devine
Issue 149 - February 3, 2010
Considering that President Barack Obama was himself an organizer, it is not surprising that labor unions are very close to his heart, especially those in the public sector where he performed most of his work. It does not hurt that unions also have been and remain the number one financial and organizational supporters of his campaigns and presidency. In fact, one could argue that without them he would not be president.
President Obama has taken many steps to repay this debt. Among Mr. Obama’s first acts as president was appointing a Task Force on Working Families headed by the Vice President that was proposed during the campaign by the Change To Win unions that endorsed Sen. Obama early in the nomination process. Following a long Democratic precedent back to President John Kennedy, he also issued three Executive Orders favoring federal sector government unions: one to repeal an obligation for federal contractors to post workers’ rights against union fees, another guaranteeing federal workers keep their jobs even if a private contractor takes over, and a third promoting “project agreements” on construction contracts favoring union over non-union firms. In announcing these goodies, the president said, “We know you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement." To prove his bona fides, new AFL-CIO head Richard L. Trumka was appointed to a council of economic advisors and has become a frequent White House visitor, as have several other top union heads.
In a period of high unemployment and recession, it is very expensive to do favors for unions. At least $300 billion of the $787 billion so-called stimulus can be considered a state and local government labor union subsidy and much of the rest helped fill highly-unionized Federal government coffers. If the goal was to revive the economy quickly, why not give money directly to individuals who can spend immediately rather than incurring delay through government bureaucracies? Public school unions do very well under the stimulus and state and local government clerical and blue collar unions are close behind. Construction unions who do work mostly for government are especially favored. The stimulus bill requires that all of the $199 billion spent by governments on construction projects must comply with Davis-Bacon “prevailing” (higher union) wage rates, effectively barring nonunion competition with lower private bids that save money compared to higher-cost union labor. No wonder that a new Associate Press study found that President Obama’s construction “stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates.”
In addition, Federal grants require a “maintenance of effort” that forbids state governments from cutting their own spending in 15 programs as a condition of receiving funds, granting unions extra protection against state legislators trying to balance stressed budgets by cutting costs.
As far as the Feds, the Washington Post civil service column headed its annual review for 2009: “Union leaders find many reasons to be merry about 2009.” First, all of the civil service regulatory agencies have been staffed with former union officials and associates. The number one goal of Federal sector unions has been to stop contracting jobs to the private sector. President John Gage of the American Federation of Government Employees declared, “ There is no question that this has been a banner year for our efforts to create laws and policies that make sourcing more accountable,” which was mainly accomplished by suspending studies that lead to privatization savings.
The next Federal union priority was to end pay based on performance rather than on seniority. William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said 2009 was: "a fantastic year for the federal workforce. The biggest accomplishment of this year is the repeal of" the pay for performance systems at the two largest departments, Homeland Security and Defense. Post columnist Joe Davidson even argued the “pay-for-performance program was the prime target of union leaders.” Congress complied by revoking both agency plans against arguments that security would decline if no one could be disciplined for poor performance.
Even little favors count. To great fanfare the Obama Education Department announced support for an increase of $400 million a year federal funding for performance pay for public sector teachers after years of avoidance under previous administrations fearful of reaction from teachers unions. What changed? Officials clarified that such performance pay was not the same as “merit pay” for individual teacher excellence. Rather, “performance pay” could be awarded to all teachers at the school regardless of their individual performance if overall results at the school improved!
Even this is only the tip of the union iceberg. Many other increases in Federal government spending fulfill union promises. One of organized labor’s top priorities is health reform. As Trumka put it recently, “The labor movement has been fighting for health care for nearly 100 years and we are not about to stop fighting now, when it really matters.” His only objection was proposed limits on expensive health plans bargained by his unions – but he was promised this would not be in the final bill. Labor support for health reform is one of the key reasons Democrats cannot stop pushing what has now become a very unpopular bill, which could cost over $2 trillion to the economy if it is adopted.
Of central importance to private sector unions, President Obama has moved to give Democrats a majority on the critical National Labor Relations Board by nominating two strongly pro-union members. He has announced support for the so-called Respect Act that would eliminate supervisors as management officials and transfer them to representation by unions and thus prevent supervisors from arguing against union organizing. After appointing former pilot and flight attendant union officers to the National Mediation Board, it moved to end a 75 year rule requiring a majority vote to unionize airline employees, without a Board vote or public comments. The former treasurer of the AFL-CIOs American Rights at Work lobbying and political unit, Hilda Solis, was made Secretary of Labor. At year’s end, his Labor Department excused unions from filling Form T-1 Trust disclosures, which reports disclose the finances of union controlled trusts that could be used for political operations funded by forced dues. The Department also announced that it would not enforce tougher conflicts of interest reporting requirements for union officers and employees. The United Auto Workers were given ownership and control of General Motors.
Contrary to the myth of business power in elections, unions contribute more and union money is better targeted to officials who will help them. Twelve of the top twenty largest Political Action Committee contributors over the past decade are labor unions, the overwhelming percentage of whose contributions go to Democrats, while the top business firm contributions are mostly diluted between the political parties. Total union contributions to Democrats are estimated nationally as over $400 billion dollars a year, not counting the large amounts from local unions. But the reported contributions are a mere drop in the bucket since unions can also use dues money to support Democratic campaigns through organizer’s time, effort and other activities.
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, bragged to a newspaper that "We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama -- $60.7 million to be exact -- and we're proud of it." Our members "knocked on 1.87 million doors, made 4.4 million phone calls and sent more than 2.5 million pieces of mail in support of Obama. We dispatched SEIU leaders to seven states in the final weekend before the election to get out the vote for Obama and other Democrats.” But only $27.8 million was reported to the Federal Election Commission as direct contributions. And that is just one union’s efforts.
The problem for the president and his Democratic allies in Congress is that unions are among the more unpopular institutions in America. The union role in sinking the U.S. auto industry has made their negative affects on the private sector impossible to ignore even for today’s most sentient Americans. It is also now official that for the first time in history a majority of union members work for the government, which is likewise perceived negatively. Gallup polls now show that approval of unions has decreased from 70% in 1937 and 1957 and even from the 60% range as recently as 2004 to a mere 48% in 2009. More important, while most Americans thought unions were helpful for their own members, a majority have thought for years that unions harm workers who are not in unions, as do 62% today, and of course only 7.6% of private sector jobs are represented by labor unions.
Still, it would be a mistake to sell the unions short on political muscle. They have the money, organization and the people to make their influence felt. At the most recent AFL-CIO convention, President Obama promised the union leaders their number one goal, the Orwellian-named Employee Free Choice Act - that would eliminate the secret ballot to decide whether workers would be organized by and pay dues to unions, and would give arbitrators rather than owners the authority to set wages and benefits if free negotiations between management and unions failed - “would pass” during his tenure. Trumka predicted the bill would be approved before April.
It is nice to have friends in high places even if the election of Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown might slow down the union juggernaut just a little bit.
Donald Devine, the editor of Conservative Battleline Online, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981 to 1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at Bellevue University’s Center for American Vision and Values.