Howard Dean is thought to have hit the jackpot last week with the dual endorsements of the giant government unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). With the promise of resources and manpower from the two largest unions within the AFL-CIO, Dean’s presidential campaign is sure to have an effective ground operation and coffers flush with cash. But more significant is what the endorsements say about Dean’s candidacy and indeed, the direction of Democratic-party politics.
Dean portrays himself as an outsider, a wily moderate governor who will take on the Washington establishment. But the SEIU and AFSCME union brass comprise a narrow special interest–government unionism–and are among the most entrenched and powerful political insiders in the nation’s capital.
Above all, these unions seek to maintain and expand their government-granted special privileges–especially the power to force employees to join or pay dues to a union in order to get or keep a job. No doubt the union brass carefully vetted Dean and determined he was the most likely viable Democrat to throw the White House behind their efforts to corral new dues-paying union members. In discussing the endorsement, SEIU president Andrew Stern even observed that “Dean’s message sounded like a union organizer’s message.”
But voters are not too keen on politicians who put the interests of union officials over the public good. At least two incumbent senators, Max Cleland (D., Ga.) and Jean Carnahan (D., Mo.), learned this lesson the hard way last year–losing their seats for voting repeatedly to force President George W. Bush to bargain with union officials before he would be allowed to make vital personnel decisions in the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
Forced unionism in the public sector is a relatively new and increasingly disturbing phenomenon. Although virtually nonexistent until the 1960s, government unions are rapidly emerging as the future of organized labor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of all union members are now government workers, and 42 percent of government employees are under union contracts. At the same time, these unions have gained a firmer grip on the reins of power within the AFL-CIO, and by extension, within a Democrat party no longer allowed to raise soft money.
Because of the deep conflict between government unionism and the notion of public service, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of union special privileges in the private sector, vehemently opposed it–and for a host of good reasons. First, government is by definition a monopoly, so compulsory unionism effectively monopolizes a monopoly. If a union hierarchy’s demands cause inefficiency or poor service, the government does not go out of business or move to another state, taxpayers just foot the bill.
Public-sector union officials are largely unaccountable. They are not elected by the public nor can they be fired by a public official, yet they are handed tremendous power over government employees and government policy. Unlike the private sector, government unions can effectively sit on both sides of the bargaining table, having used their power and resources to elect the employer. And last, handing the union hierarchy monopoly control over vital services such as hospitals, police, firefighting, and trash collection enables union officials to hold the public hostage to union demands.
Meanwhile, the government unions have long been a haven for the most ideological and militant leftists within the ranks of organized labor. Increasingly influential, government union officials have been tugging the AFL-CIO further and further toward the left edge of the American political spectrum. In fact, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, a self-proclaimed member of the Democratic Socialists of America, rose to power from the post of SEIU president on the promise to lead a far more militant labor movement than the nation has seen in a long time. Today, both the SEIU’s Stern and Gerald McEntee, AFSCME’s president, are potential contenders to be Sweeney’s successor.
Of course, private-sector unions are consistent advocates for regulation on businesses, lucrative government contracts and set asides, discrimination against non-union firms and employees, and protectionist trade policies. However, much to their chagrin, these demands are checked by the realities of the free market and the need to create private-sector jobs, as the Teamsters union showed by its support for oil drilling in Alaska.
On the other hand, government union officials have little concern for private-sector jobs. AFSCME and the SEIU have a vested interest in large and inefficient government, which translates directly into more dues-paying union members and more political clout. That’s why they have been the most vehement opponents of President Bush’s tax cuts (even savagely attacking Democrats who voted for them), all attempts to privatize government services, and educational freedom. Meanwhile, these unions are clamoring for socialized medicine and new special privileges such as increased collective bargaining and forced-dues authority for union officials at the federal, state, and local government levels.
That’s why Americans should be especially mindful of who the government union bosses favor. While the private-sector unions may want to steal our money, the SEIU and AFSCME want to steal our freedom.
–Stefan Gleason is vice president of the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.