How Union Bosses Sold Out Their Workers
The 2016 election exposed deep divisions in America, but none deeper than that between the leadership of organized labor and its membership. Union bosses spent some $100 million in member dues to try and elect Hillary Clinton and other Democrats across the country. It wasn’t money well-spent.
This disconnect between Democratic elites, their union boss pals and rank-and-file union members has been a long time coming. Decades ago, organized labor made a pact with the Democratic Party. Democrats would support legislation approved by the union leadership and in return labor leaders would support Democratic politicians and liberal causes, even when those candidates and causes were objectionable to most of their members.
The labor agenda became nearly indistinguishable from that of the East Coast liberals and Hollywood elites who run the Democratic Party. This agenda focused on climate change, immigration reform, and liberal cultural issues rather than working to improve their members’ economic condition. This was particularly true when it came to public employee unions that are especially close to Democratic politicians who control government purse strings.
But Democrats and public-sector union bosses sowed the seeds of their mutual destruction in Wisconsin and Michigan where public employee pay, benefits and pensions were threatening to bankrupt the states. In reaction, Govs. Scott Walker and Rick Snyder and legislative Republicans passed collective bargaining reforms and right-to-work laws that gave workers the right to opt out of paying union dues.
Democrats thought Republicans had done them a favor by energizing labor activists. They set out to recall Walker, and unions mobilized their members to hold massive protests. But a funny thing happened: In union-heavy Wisconsin, Walker not only survived the recall rather handily, he went on to win re-election again in 2012. So did Rick Snyder in Michigan, one of the most union-heavy states in the country. In the meantime, workers keep leaving private-sector unions in droves.
With Walker and Snyder’s reforms, the political power of the unions, once fueled by compulsory union dues, was stripped away, and they could no longer coerce their former members into spending their time supporting get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic politicians they personally opposed.
At the Freedom Foundation, we saw this phenomenon coming, having worked for three years to educate many of these union workers in Washington state and Oregon about their right to opt out of paying dues. It was those union members and their working-class compatriots in the Trump Belt, spanning from Maine through upstate New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, who sealed Hillary Clinton’s fate and secured surprising victories for endangered Republican senators like Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
We know from the conversations we have when we canvass SEIU members door-to-door that many object to the way their money is spent by the union bosses. They feel they aren’t getting anything meaningful in return for the money they are forced to fork over to their union leadership. It’s especially insulting when they learn how much of their money is going to finance political causes and candidates with whom they disagree.
In a recent campaign in Washington state, we found that 60 percent of union members choose to keep their dues money once they are made aware of the facts. Because of Freedom Foundation’s efforts to educate workers about their rights, over 8,800 have dropped their memberships and stopped paying dues, costing the local SEIU more than $10 million that would have otherwise been spent promoting a left-wing political agenda.
SEIU was so threatened by our efforts that this year it spent $1.8 million funding a ballot initiative in Washington state that would rewrite transparency laws to try to prevent us from informing union members of their rights. They couched their initiative as a way of protecting the elderly from online fraudsters. This was a ruse, as most of the state’s newspapers pointed out, but it passed anyway, which shows that our efforts at reform will be resisted vigorously.
But the Washington state referendum—Initiative 1501—should also be a wake-up call to the union members because it shows just how disingenuous their leadership is willing to be to protect themselves from scrutiny. When you are funding a campaign to prevent your members from knowing how you spend their money, it's time to face the fact that you are no longer meeting their needs.
So, following Donald Trump’s victory, the message to the newly empowered Republican majority is obvious: Give workers more rights to keep their hard-earned money and free them from the shackles of union membership, and you will be rewarded at the polls. The message from workers to their out-of-touch union bosses was even more unmistakable: You’re fired.