Mike Barone Gets It

How taxpayers fund union politics

In his recent article for National Review Online, columnist Michael Barone highlights the influence that government employee unions have over elections. In particular, he spotlights AFSCME and the $87.5 million it plans to contribute to candidates. He then follows the money trail back just a little bit to reveal the real source of government union money and power:

Public employees’ union dues and contributions to union PACs come directly from taxpayers. So if you live in a state or city with strong public-employee unions, you are paying a tax that goes to elect Democratic candidates (plus, perhaps, a few malleable Republicans).

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Barone is being a bit sloppy by combining PAC funds and union dues — in Michigan at least, PAC funds, which are used for direct contributions to candidates, must be raised separately from union dues and solicited from voluntary donors. But his main point is dead-on. Unions can do a lot of politicking with regular union dues: Carefully targeted get-out-the-vote campaigns, issue advertizing, even candidate endorsements. The $87.5 million figure is almost certainly a vast understatement of AFSCME’s real commitment to its preferred candidates.

And yes, the real source of that money is taxpayers. Most of the states (like Michigan) that have strong government employee unions lack (also like Michigan) right-to-work protections for their workers. That means that governments can and typically will agree as part of collective bargaining that they will collect union dues or "agency fees" for every employee covered by the contract and turn these funds — several hundred dollars per employee annually — over to the union with few questions asked. These funds come from citizens, who supposedly pay taxes for important government services, not union politics.

Some readers have been aware of the connection for some time. Government employee unions have morphed into a permanent, taxpayer-funded lobby for big government. Any movement, like the Tea Parties, that wants to reduce the scope of government will need to confront and defeat government employee unions — and if they are to have any lasting success, it will be essential that government employee unions lose taxpayer funding.