Media Back Democrats in Union Showdowns

April 5, 2011 04:46

“In effect, public employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.”

By Roger Aronoff

February of 2011 may prove to be a turning point in the direction this country is heading. There may no longer be a choice. In early March the Congressional Budget Office released a report that said the deficit for the month of February alone was $223 billion. At an annualized rate, that would put the deficit for the year at a more than $2.6 trillion. That’s the deficit—for just one year! It will probably end up between $1.5 and $2 trillion, but that is still a stunning figure. It was less than 50 years ago that the total U.S. annual budget exceeded $100 billion for the first time. The next budget will be in the neighborhood of $3.7 trillion.

But February 2011 was a turning point for another reason as well. Push came to shove, literally and figuratively, in the state of Wisconsin, and has spread across the heartland of the country, reaching Indiana and Ohio, with signs of life in a number of other states as well. Fourteen Democratic Wisconsin state senators crossed the border into Illinois in order to avoid having to vote on Governor Scott Walker’s “budget-repair” bill that was intended in part to alter the relationship between public employee unions and the state and localities of Wisconsin. It has been a painful but revealing experience that has brought issues to light that have been simmering for many years.

The lesson of the turmoil is that elections have consequences. Jon Meacham, then-editor of Newsweek, wrote in February 2009 that “without a great deal of fanfare, the America of 2009 has become a more socialist country.” He thought that was a good thing. The cover story that week was, “We are all Socialists Now.” That same month President Obama and Congress passed the $787 billion “stimulus” bill without any Republican support, and the phrase that captured the zeitgeist was, “We won, you lost, get over it.”

That same month, Rick Santelli of CNBC called for a Tea Party revolt. These were some of the key events in the run-up to the turmoil and gridlock that is paralyzing our country today. In November of that same year, Republican Chris Christie easily defeated incumbent Governor John Corzine in New Jersey, a heavily Democratic state, in which President Obama had campaigned for Corzine. He won by promising to cut taxes and to take on the public employee unions. And then the Democrats pushed through ObamaCare in ways that seemed rather undemocratic.   Yet another milestone on this path was last July, when the Los Angeles Times broke the story of Bell, California, a poor suburb of L.A. with a population of about 36,000, where, it was revealed, that the salaries and pensions of city employees were huge. Several were making well more than the U.S. President, who makes $400,000 a year. The City Manager received nearly $800,000 a year. With benefits, he received $1.5 million in one year, and with his pension he was set to receive $1 to $1.5 million a year. His assistant made over $375,000 a year, and the police chief was paid $457,000. They all resigned in the wake of the scandal, but it brought to the surface a troubling aspect of American life. What was going on in state and local governments, and by whom and how was it supposed to be paid? How extensive were these government rip-offs of the American people?

Wisconsin, for example, is facing a $137 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and a $3.6 billion deficit over the next two-year budget cycle. Gov. Walker’s plan, the so-called “budget repair” bill, would take away much of the  collective bargaining rights from teachers and other state and local employees, but police, firefighters and state troopers would be exempt.

This gets to the crux of the issue. While the overwhelming number of people who are part of public sector labor unions, such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are hardworking people, the problem is the relationship between those unions, the elected representatives at the state and local level, and the Democratic Party. There is an inherent conflict of interest. The elected officials make sweetheart deals with the unions, and thus their members receive substantial salary and benefit packages. Some of that taxpayer money goes into union coffers, which is then used to get the same, or other Democrats elected, who then vote larger and sweeter deals for the people who just helped them get elected, and tax hikes for the average hardworking citizens who work in the private sector and foot most of the bills.

Just how one-sided are these public-sector unions? According to the Center for Public Integrity, in a report released in early March, this is the status of the largest public employee unions: The NEA has a membership of 3.2 million; assets: $216 million. Of the $3.7 million NEA spent on political activities in the last election cycle, 98% went to Democratic candidates. The NEA has 98,000 members in Wisconsin.

• SEIU: Membership: 1.8 million; assets: $187 million. The SEIU…has been organizing hospital, home care and nursing home workers, along with local and state government employees, janitors and security officers. Over the past two years, SEIU gave almost $2 million to Democratic candidates and $8,500 to Republicans. It has 18,000 members in Wisconsin.

• American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees: Membership: 1.5 million; assets: $78 million. Over the past two years, AFSCME has donated $2.3 million to Democratic candidates and $78,500 to Republicans.

• American Federation of Teachers: Membership: 887,000; assets: $115 million. AFT is the smaller of the two teacher unions and also represents school support staff, higher education faculty and staff, health care professionals and state and municipal employees. Of the $2.4 million donated to political candidates in the past two years, the union gave all but $10,000 to Democrats.

There has been much discussion over the amount that teachers in Wisconsin are compensated, and how well their students are doing. In Milwaukee, for example, the average compensation package for a teacher exceeds $100,000 per year, including benefits, yet the graduation rate for all students in Milwaukee is 46%, and among African Americans it’s just 34%.

Gov. Walker is asking that public employees contribute 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care, which is less than half of the national average. He also wants them to pay less than six percent of their earnings toward their pensions, which is consistent with the national average.

But again, the real issues are the inherent contradictions and conflicts of interest in government collective bargaining, in which the taxpayers have no seat at the table. While much of the media and many of the politicians talk about Gov. Walker’s actions as being cruel, unnecessary, and union busting, the logic behind his actions seems quite sound.

The Heritage Foundation has created a one-page fact sheet they call Government Unions 101: What Public Sector Unions Won’t Tell You. They point out that Government Collective Bargaining is in fact a “Legal Monopoly” which “gives unions a monopoly on the government’s workforce. The government must employ workers on the terms the union negotiates. It may not hire competing workers.” It explains that “Unions operate differently in government than in the private sector. Private-sector unions bargain over limited profits. Competition from other businesses moderates wage demands. Governments earn no profits and have no competition. Government unions negotiate for more tax dollars.” And, “When government unions strike, they can deprive citizens of essential services—such as education for children—until demands are met.”

Heritage also points out how this has been viewed historically. “Early labor leaders didn’t believe unions belonged in government. In 1955, George Meany, then-president of the AFL-CIO, said: ‘It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.’ In 1959 the AFL-CIO Executive Council declared, ‘In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress—a right available to every citizen.”

Even the Left’s favorite president, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D) gave unions extensive powers to bargain collectively in the private sector but excluded them from government. FDR believed collective bargaining had no place in public service and that a government strike was ‘unthinkable and intolerable.’

He was even more absolute than that. In a letter he wrote to the National Federation of Federal Employees in 1937, FDR said that “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.”

Kimberley Strassel of The Wall Street Journal asked, “If the president is so upset with Wisconsin’s labor law reforms, why won’t he allow federal workers to bargain collectively?” Strassel was noting the irony that the mainstream media chose to ignore: “The union horde is spreading, from Madison to Indianapolis to a state capital near you. And yet the Democratic and union bigwigs engineering the outrage haven’t directed their angry multitudes at what is arguably the most ‘hostile workplace’ in the nation: Washington, D.C.”

Her point is that President Obama, “the great patron of the working man, also happens to be the great CEO of one of the least union-friendly shop floors in the nation.” After all, she says, Obama is “the President who has berated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees, calling the very idea an ‘assault on unions.’ This is also the president who has sicced his political arm, Organizing for America, on Madison, allowing the group to fill buses and plan rallies.”

By calling this an “assault on unions,” Obama is failing to distinguish between government unions and labor unions in general.

Strassel continues: “Fact: President Obama is the boss of a civil work force that numbers up to two million (excluding postal workers and uniformed military). Fact: Those federal workers cannot bargain for wages or benefits. Fact: Washington, D.C. is, in the purest sense, a ‘right to work zone.’ Federal employees are not compelled to join a union, nor to pay union dues. Fact: Neither Mr. Obama, nor the prior Democratic majority, ever acted to give their union chums a better federal deal.”

She says that for “this enormous flexibility in managing his work force, Mr. Obama can thank his own party. In 1978, Democratic President Jimmy Carter, backed by a Democratic Congress, passed the Civil Service Reform Act. Washington had already established its General Schedule (GS) classification and pay system for workers. The 1978 bill went further, focused as it was on worker accountability and performance. It severely proscribed the issues over which employees could bargain, as well as prohibited compulsory union support.”

They could bargain over “personnel employment practices,” but not over pay, health-care or retirement plans.

You can call this irony, but perhaps hypocrisy is a better word for it. Strassel explained that “Even Carter Democrats understood the difference between being in electoral debt to the unions, and being outright owned by them. And as Gov. Walker will attest, allowing unions to collectively bargain over pay and benefits is allowing them the keys to the statehouse.” She notes that “The real game is to insist that the dough runs through the union—giving it power over the state.”

And oh, how it runs. According to Michael Barone, “unions, most of whose members are public employees, gave Democrats some $400 million in the 2008 election cycle. [AFSCME], the biggest public employee union, gave Democrats $90 million in the 2010 cycle.” He concludes, “In effect, public employee unions are a mechanism by which every taxpayer is forced to fund the Democratic Party.”

Kimberly Strassel speculated that after following his initial instincts to get involved in this issue in Wisconsin, a potential battleground state for the 2012 election, Obama has “gone quiet” because “The White House has since sensed danger. As the world is painfully aware, Mr. Obama is under no obligation to balance his budget. So to whack Gov. Walker for his efforts to do so might strike some Americans as irresponsible, especially as the president is working to convince them that he really does care about deficits.”

“The other risk,” she writes, is that “The spotlight turns back to D.C. If the president is so worried about Wisconsin’s ‘assault,’ why has he never taken up federal bargaining rights? If the Badger State’s [Wisconsin] current system is the gold standard, why has he not replicated it? If it is so important that all parties ‘sit at the table’—as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently lectured Wisconsin—how dare Mr. Obama unilaterally declare a federal pay freeze?”

Strassel concluded that “The debate over public-union giveaways has only started. That debate would benefit were Mr. Obama to explain how it is that Wisconsin is wrong to ask for the same budget flexibility that he enjoys as president. If he’s unable to do that, perhaps the debate ought to be over.”

Andy McCarthy, who worked for the government for many years himself, mostly as a prosecutor, wrote for National Review that “The public sector employees work for us—they are not beaten down by ‘the man,’ ‘the system,’ or whatever bogeyman the lefties are using today. The only ‘collective bargaining’ they should be permitted is the regular legislative process that everyone else who wants something from the public purse needs to go through. And I can tell you from personal experience, having worked in the public sector for over two decades—and having felt honored to represent the public in court despite making a lot less money than I could have made as a private attorney—that the real public servants understand this. The people driving this train, and driving us into bankruptcy, are left-wing activists whose power hinges on maintaining this perverse system in which unions effectively sit on both sides of the negotiation, passing piles of public money over and under the table.”

Media Double Standard On Display

The media have chosen sides. They stand with the unions and have failed to point out Obama’s hypocrisy. For one thing, the networks were comparing the demonstrations in Wisconsin to those in the Middle East, characterizing them both as popular, democratic uprisings. NBC News anchor Brian Williams said in a report, “From the Mideast to the American Midwest tonight, people are rising up.” He said, “Citizen uprisings are changing the world.” Diane Sawyer, on ABC News, said that “One lawmaker looked out at the crowds gathered in the Wisconsin capital today said it’s like Cairo moved to Madison.”

Jonathan Tobin of Commentary magazine wrote, “Contrary to the [New York] Times, the governor of Wisconsin and the Republicans in the legislature there are not the moral equivalent of Tunisian or Egyptian autocrats. They were voted into office by the people and what they are doing is exactly what they promised the electorate they would do once they gained office. It is the unions and the Democrats who are the reactionary defenders of an untenable and frankly undemocratic status quo, not the Republicans who advocate change.”

Regarding the media’s double standard, Tobin wrote that “the Times’ flattering portrait of the protesters ignores the extremist and violent rhetoric that has characterized the union demonstrators…unionists and the Democratic Party activists who have been bused in to help them have compared Governor Walker to Adolf Hitler and the Republicans to Nazis… Yet the Times has ignored that aspect of the story even though such rhetoric and demonstrators’ signs were the focus of much of their coverage of Tea Party protests. One can only conclude that in the liberal universe of the New York Times, left-wing union protesters are judged by a very different standard than the one they employ to report and editorialize about the conservatives of the Tea Party.”

The need to diminish the size and activities of government at all levels is colliding with an emboldened union movement, and a White House and Senate still controlled by left-wing Democrats determined to protect their labor union backers. The media are playing their part, setting the stage for a government shutdown that they will surely blame on the Republicans. It’s never dull.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media. He can be contacted at

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